A complete guide to vegan leather
Synthetic leathers are called different things and can be made using a variety of different base materials. If you have ever asked yourself “what is PU leather?”, “what is faux leather”or “what is PVC?” read on and let us unravel the terminology, because choosing faux leathers and vegan leathers can be more environmentally friendly than animal leather if you choose the right ones.
The fashion industry is one of the major polluting industries in the world. The spotlight is on manufacturers, designers and retailers to make environmentally friendly decisions about the way they design and the materials they use.
More environmentally friendly than cow leather?
Incidentally, we have a separate article called ‘Lessons in Leather‘ which looks at the environmental impact of cow leather. A common misconception is that cow leather is a natural, organic material and therefore better for the environment. In this article we look at the processes involved, the pollution created and the impact from cradle to gate.
The impact of leather on our planet has been known for a long time and was highlighted in the 2017 Pulse of Fashion Industry Report. Of all materials used for fashion, animal fibers occupy four of the top five least environmentally friendly, with cow leather being the most damaging. The ‘cradle to gate environmental impact’ study compared each type of fiber and their impact on chemistry, global warming and water scarcity, and cow leather was found to be most damaging of all the fibers. In the same study, it was determined that faux leathers contribute just one third of environmental impact compared to cow leather.
What is vegan leather?
Vegan leather is any material which mimics the look and feel of animal leather. Manufacturers aim to combine the basic qualities of natural leather in a fabric. Vegan leather can be made in any colour or finish, it can even be made with embossed patterns to mimic crocodile, lizard or ostrich skin. As with all materials, there are cheap versions and premium versions which last longer and look better.
Historically, vegan leather was made using PU (polyurethane) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride), but things have changed. Over the last decade, innovations in textile development means we can now have vegan leather made with pineapple leaves, apple peels, cork and other fruit waste. These new materials are leading the way, not only reducing the environmental impact of fashion, but helping to reduce food waste too.
What is faux leather?
Faux leather is simply another word used to define vegan leather. Other terminology includes pleather, leatherette, synthetic leather, artificial or non-leather. As with all of materials, look past the ‘umbrella name’ and try to understand exactly what the material is.
So, what are the different types, how are they made and how environmentally friendly are they?
What is PVC?
PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is a material derived from salt and oil. The electrolysis of saltwater produces chlorine, which is combined with ethylene (obtained from oil). PVC is one of the most toxic plastics produced on Earth. In addition to containing cadmium, mercury, chlorine and lead, PVC also releases dioxins.
Dioxins are a group of chemically related compounds that are persistent environmental pollutants (POPs). They can cause problems with reproduction, development, and the immune system. They can also disrupt hormones and lead to cancer. As persistent environmental pollutants (POPs), dioxins can remain in the environment for many years. In addition, some additives to PVC can be toxic to the consumer.
Conscious fashion brands no longer use PVC. Stella McCartney ceased the use of all PVC plastics in 2010 and was instrumental in bringing about change. By 2016, all Kering brands (who at that time had a stake in the brand, had stopped using PVC (1). This material is cheap, so there are many companies still using it.
What is PVC? Well, Greenpeace described it as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic”.
What is PU leather?
PU is short for Polyurethane, which is essentially a plastic. When someone asks us to define PU leather, it can be difficult, because the PU part can make up a percentage of the material, for example a coating, or constitute the whole material.
Is PU leather vegan?
100% synthetic PU leather is a polymer derived from petroleum and is vegan. However, when is comes to application, PU can be mixed with other materials which may not be vegan. We will come to that shortly. PU has some useful qualities. The hand feel is soft and its characteristics and structure are similar to animal leather. It does not absorb water, is scratch resistant and breathable.
Unlike PVC, PU doesn’t release harmful substances and dioxins when it is being used or when it is disposed of, so it’s considered to be more eco-friendly. In most cases, PU is still made with solvents, but the landscape is changing here too, with more manufacturers adopting water-based methods. Large fashion companies such as H&M are looking to completely phase out solvent-based PU (2), so there is a big incentive for suppliers to change.
Is PU leather eco friendly?
Well, there are water-based PU leathers which avoid the use of solvents and these could be considered eco-friendly. However this doesn’t mean we should use it for cheap, fast fashion. As with all consumer purchases, buying less and buying well should always the approach to fashion purchases.
Bicast PU Leather
PU can also be used to make bicast leather, a combination of animal skin base fibres and a coating of PU. If you do not want to buy bicast PU leather, but sure to check the item is labelled vegan. If not, there is a risk it is not 100% synthetic PU.
Bio-based polymers are materials made with a part organic component. Corn leather, apple leather and cactus leather are just a few such materials.
The cores and skins from the food industry are used to make apple leather. The apple waste is puréed and dehydrated until almost all the moisture has gone. The dried purée turns into a flexible, leathery sheet which is combined with PU to create the final material.
In a similar way, oil extracted from field corn, a non food grade corn, can be used to make a strong base material before being combined with Polyurethane (PU) to create another, high durable, low impact vegan leather.
Pineapple Leather by Piñatex is created by felting the long cellulose fibres from pineapple leaves to create a non-woven substrate. It is composed of a mixture of these pineapple fibres, PLA (Polylactic acid), and petroleum-based resins. As with all the other bio-based materials Piñatex is not biodegradable but, it is partially made using a waste product that requires no additional land, water, pesticides or fertilizers. It is also made without any of the toxic chemicals and heavy metals used in animal leather production.
The latest innovators of plant-based leathers is Desserto, from Mexico. The process for making their award-winning Cactus Leather involves using the young leaves of the prickly pear cactus. These leaves are harvested from organically grown cactus plants which require very little water to grow. They are cleaned, mashed, and left in the sun to dry for three days before being processed into the final material.
Bio-based vegan leathers are a giant stride towards fully sustainable faux leathers. They reduce the reliance on petroleum and the organic, plant-based elements do not divert resources necessary for human food, food farms or animal feed. The bio content in almost all cases is entirely renewable so the production of these materials has a substantially lower impact on the environment.
There is one more additional benefit too. All of these materials are made on a roll which means items can be designed and cut to use as much of the material as possible. Animal leather on the other hand produces a lot of waste, due to the shape of the animal skin. Producers are also conscious of not using any parts of the skin which have imperfections such as scars (caused when animals rub or scratch themselves on fences or barbed wire), or stretch marks which can be caused by the intensive way that animals are raised and grown quickly.
Bio-based materials are even being made from grape waste from the wine industry and an alternative for silk has been created using production waste from the orange industry.
Winner of the Global Change Award, VEGEA is a synthetic material characterised by the high levels of plant, renewable and recycled raw content. This innovation is a new generation of alternatives to totally petroleum-based and animal-derived materials. VEGEA is made in Italy and forms part of the project to create a 100% recyclable, vegan leather alternative that can be used in the fashion industry.
Wholly natural vegan leather alternatives
All natural materials sound like the utopia of material innovation, but there are constraints with how these materials can be used and their longevity. Many consumers are looking to balance their desire for a more sustainable lifestyle and a product which gives them value for money and not all applications using these materials deliver that yet.
Mushroom leather is made from mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a network of fine white filaments. Mycelium can be grown in almost any kind of agriculture waste. It is highly sustainable because it can be made and treated without using polluting substances. At the end of it’s life, the material is completely biodegradable and compostable. It is extremely light-weight and flexible too, which makes it effective for a wide range of products.
The future of vegan leather
The vegan leather market is set to be worth $85 billion by 2025 (3). Vegan leather is not just being adopted in fashion, other industries are seeing the benefit too. BMW, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla all offer vegan leather options for interior upholstery.
Every year, more than a billion cows, pigs, goats, sheep, alligators, ostriches, kangaroos, and even dogs and cats are slaughtered for their skin (source: PETA). Animal welfare aside, both vegan and plant-based lifestyles are growing in popularity due to environmental concerns over the damage caused by livestock farming for meat. Add to this the destruction caused by leather tanning (4) and it is easy to see why this market is growing so rapidly.
Ultimately, the need to produce low impact, innovative materials is becoming essential and without doubt vegan leathers are now in a league all of their own.