What is vegan leather? The truth about the trendy textile
We asked an expert about the real impact of fake leather.
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From Spanx to power lift recliners, faux or “vegan” leather products are everywhere, that’s—ahem—faux sure. In February 2022, several collections at New York Fashion Week even featured the trendy textile.
But what exactly is vegan leather and how is it made? Is it any different than “pleather”? And is it better for the environment than real leather? We dug through the marketing lingo to find the facts.
What is vegan leather?
Before we can define vegan leather, it helps to understand what real leather is. In simple terms, leather is the hide of an animal, which, according to Preeti Gopinath, associate professor of textiles at New York's Parsons School of Design, is often a “byproduct of the food industry.” Like skin, the textile is breathable and permeable. Similar to fur, leather often has a big price tag—and generates big controversy in some circles. After all, not everyone wants to wear real leather, especially those who identify as vegan or choose not to eat or use animal products. What's more, the raising of cows and other livestock is not the most environmentally friendly process, as according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 14.5% of anthropogenic global greenhouse gas emissions are generated by livestock, with 65% of those emissions attributed to cattle.
Enter vegan leather, a leather-like textile that doesn’t contain animal products. When it comes to a more specific definition of the vegan version, however, things get a bit more complicated. The term itself is “just marketing,” Gopinath says, as it encompasses a wide range of leather-like textiles with varying make-ups and environmental impacts. While the term “vegan” is buzzy in fashion right now, it’s really just another way of saying faux leather, or pleather (if made of plastic).
What is vegan leather made of?
The term is a catchall for several types of materials. Good ole pleather, perhaps the most well-known type, is made using PVC or polyurethane, which Gopinath calls “essentially plastics.” You might not see it called pleather much these days, thanks to another marketing move. “You can’t tell a millennial [to] buy plastic leather,” says Gopinath, pointing to the much-publicized drawbacks of excess plastic use.
And those concerns are not unfounded: Because plastic isn’t biodegradable, pleather ends up in landfills where, Gopinath says, “like any plastic bag, it will live forever… leaching chemicals into the soil.” What’s more, as faux leather can be less durable than real leather, it often meets that fate faster.
In response to those environmental concerns, a new group of vegan leathers is growing in popularity. Called bioplastics or biomaterials, the new leather look-alikes are developed from natural materials instead of plastics. While the innovative textiles are more biodegradable than pleather, Gopinath says it’s too soon to definitively call them “sustainable” because “we're not yet sure how the processes of actual production also impacts the environment.” Other factors beyond biodegradability, including whether the dyes are toxic to the environment, are also at play.
Types of bio-based vegan leather sold today include textiles made from:
- Cactus: There’s more than one way to skin, well, a cactus. Despite the plant’s prickliness, cacti leaves can create smooth vegan leather. The textile, introduced in 2019, was even featured in a Mercedes Benz electric concept car, along with mushroom leather (see below) and biotech silk.
- Mushroom: Fungi, but make it fashion. Designers including Stella McCartney are incorporating leather made from mycelium, part of a fungus, into their designs.
- Pineapple: A company called Piñatex uses pineapple leaf fiber to create a (pricey) leather-like textile.
- Corn: In 2020, sneaker company Veja started using a corn-based leather alternative in some of their styles.
How do you clean vegan leather?
Unlike animal leather, which often requires specialized solvents and a trip to the dry cleaner, plastic-based vegan leather is easy to clean at home. Because water doesn’t harm the fabric’s finish like real leather, you can wipe pleather products with a damp cloth, Gopinath says.
What are other benefits to vegan leather?
Vegan leather is also easier to dye. Unlike real leather, which comes in the color of the animal’s hide and requires extensive processing to change that, vegan leather can be produced in any color and requires “much less maintenance,” says Gopinath. “If you have to dye regular leather then obviously it has even more chemicals,” she added. Additionally, unlike real leather, vegan leather doesn’t have a specific smell, though the plastic ones can smell, well, plasticky.
Is vegan leather less comfortable or durable than real leather?
If you’re considering adding some pleather to your closet, you might want to choose a style with a liner to keep the material from touching your skin. “If you were to wear plastic…all day, it's not going to breathe whereas real leather is like a skin,” says Gopinath. Additionally, when it comes to durability, pleather can crack over time. “I would say maybe the appearance doesn't sustain as long as real leather because real leather we like how it wears, [and] the more worn, the more people like it.”
Is vegetable-tanned leather the same as vegan leather?
Don’t be fooled by the name: Vegetable-tanned leather is not the same as vegan leather. Tanning refers to a process that stabilizes animal-based leather so it won’t decay over time. While vegetable-tanned leather is tanned using natural tannins, often derived from tree bark, it’s still the hide of an animal and therefore not vegan.
Why choose vegan leather over the real thing?
It depends on what you’re looking for. If your main priority is an animal-free textile, vegan leather fills the bill. But if you’re expecting other environmental benefits from the fabric, it's best to research before buying. Because vegan leather refers to a range of textiles, not one standard product, the fabrics differ in terms of environmental impact, feel on the skin, and so on. “Just ask yourself, what is it that you are presuming vegan leather means that [makes] you feel good about [buying] it?” Gopinath says. “And if it's just the fact that an animal was not used, that's great… But if you also presume all kinds of other things in terms of production methods, and how it's good for you or good for your skin… don't just accept it, investigate it.”
The same goes for real leather—organizations such as the Leather Working Group, whose founding members include brands like Timberland and Adidas, work to develop environmental standards for leather sourcing, while retailers including Coach offer resale sites to keep gently used leather products out of the waste stream for longer.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.