Vegan leather is a leather alternative that is usually made from plastic-based materials such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU). Although vegan leather is often marketed as a more sustainable alternative to leather, the truth is that it has an extremely negative environmental impact.
Vegan leather, also known as “pleather” (plastic leather) or faux leather, often has a strange chemical smell that comes from the plastic material used to make the products. To make the material as similar to cowhide leather as possible, manufacturers use plasticizers such as phthalate to soften the material.
Although some may perceive this to be a more eco-friendly process, the plastics used in vegan leather can be dangerous to the health of the user and the environment. Greenpeace has described phthalates as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic”, while PU emits dangerous chemicals during the manufacturing process and PVC contains dioxins that are hazardous in confined spaces and when burned.
How Is Real Leather Better For the Environment?
The leather industry has had some criticism for its use of animal hides, however, the majority of the leathers produced are byproducts of the meat industry that would otherwise fill landfills. Processing hides from cattle and other livestock into leather is one of the oldest forms of recycling and is among the more renewable resources being used in the garment industry. Because leather is more durable than other commonly available materials, clothing and products made from leather will typically outlast cotton, polyester, and other materials, reducing the amount of textile waste.
Types of Leather
Vegetable tanning leather is the oldest and most natural tanning method used for leather. This process is done by soaking a hide in a solution of natural tannins, usually developed from trees. Vegetable-tanned leather can take up to two months to make and is generally regarded as more valuable because of the time and expertise it requires to produce. These firmer leathers are typically sold in their natural tan color and are commonly used in the production of boots, belts, holsters, knife sheaths, leathercraft, and more.
Chrome-tanned leather is made using chromium as the main agent. Hides are tumbled in a mineral solution and the process can be finished in a matter of a few days rather than a few months. For this reason, chrome-tanned leather has become quite popular and accounts for around 90% of all leather today. Chrome-tanned leather is typically fairly supple and dyed in a wide variety of colors. The color remains relatively unchanged over time and it is slightly more water-resistant than veg-tanned leather because of its finish. Chrome-tanned leathers are commonly used for upholstery, clothing, furniture manufacturing, hair-on cowhide rugs, and much more.
How to Tell Cowhide Leather From Vegan Leather
There is a wide range of quality when it comes to vegan leather, so some may look more like cowhide leather than others. However, there are a few main differences: pores, patina, smell, and stretch.
Cowhide leather has pores, while vegan leather does not. This is usually visible on the surface of the product, but some vegan leather manufacturers have started printing pores onto their products to further the illusion that they are genuine leather. The pores on leather contribute to the breathability of the material.
A patina is the gradual darkening of leather, specifically vegetable-tanned leather. It is caused in part by the accumulation of natural oils and minerals on a leather product from everyday use. A patina is desirable to many because it gives a unique quality to the piece, often demonstrating the quality and care of the product. Vegan leather does not accumulate a patina, however, it’s worth noting that chrome-tanned leather does not either.
As previously mentioned, vegan leather is made from plastic materials with chemicals that are often hazardous. One of the easiest ways to tell if a product is an authentic or fake leather is to smell it. Cowhide leather will have a more natural, earthy smell, whereas vegan leather will have a harsh chemical smell. This is particularly prevalent when the product is near a heat source.
Another difference between cowhide and vegan alternatives is that leather has a bit of a natural stretch that can develop over time since it is made from genuine animal hide. Vegan leather, made from plastic, will not form-fit the end-user like actual leather products. This is why consumers are often advised to buy leather clothing in a snug fit as it will gradually stretch to custom fit the owner over time.
Frequently Asked Questions About Vegan Leather
Is vegan leather durable?
Vegan leather is much thinner and less durable than cowhide leather because it is most frequently made from plastic. The most popular types of vegan leather typically have a maximum lifespan of two to five years with light use. Authentic leather, on the other hand, can last well over 30 years if taken care of well.
Is vegan leather waterproof?
Vegan leather is considered water-resistant due to the plastic coating on the material. Since cowhide leather is porous, it can never be completely waterproofed, although there are leather balms and creams available that can help protect items like boots.
Is vegan leather biodegradable?
Vegan leather made from plastics and chemicals claims to be biodegradable, however, it may take upwards of 500 years to naturally break down. Since cowhide leather is a natural product, it can take 50 years or less to biodegrade.
Is vegan leather safe?
The process of manufacturing most vegan leather releases harmful dioxides into the environment. The strange smell that many vegan leather products have is due to harmful chemicals that can be dangerous if breathed in enclosed spaces or burned.
Is pineapple leather good?
Piñatex researchers have developed a leather alternative made from pineapple fibers. Like all faux leather, it is not real leather and does not have the long-lasting qualities that cowhide leather offers. The frequency at which these less durable alternatives have to be produced to replace themselves when they wear out causes increased manufacturing byproducts, which has a negative impact on the environment. The claim that it is made from biodegradable materials is true, however, they are made from materials that would decompose relatively quickly anyway if left unused. While the use of animal hides to make leather solves a problem of waste in the meat industry, pineapple leather solves a problem that does not really exist.