What is vegan leather?
Vegan leather, also known as faux leather, or a leather alternative—is a leather-like fabric that isn’t made from the skin of animals. Instead, vegan leather is made from a variety of plastic and plant materials which I’ll explain in more detail later in this post.
That’s my brief summary of vegan leather. But when it comes to ethical and sustainable standards of the leather industry, there’s a lot to consider as a mindful consumer.
Unfortunately, vegan or not, leather can be an incredibly harmful fabric at multiple levels of the supply chain.
In this post, I’m going to share how my relationship with leather has changed since becoming vegan, but then how I was pushed to look beyond the surface when it came to finding sustainable alternatives.
Note: use the table of contents below to skip to any section of this article.
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My perspective on the ethics of leather changed
Up until the age of 26, I loved leather products. Whether it was spending months researching what leather wallet I should buy, to the best pigskin leather basketball to use, or finding the most luxurious leather jacket I could afford to go with my denim jeans.
I associated leather with quality. If I was going to buy leather shoes, I wanted durable, soft, and genuine leather shoes — none of this cardboard-like synthetic business. I wanted the real deal!
In August 2014, I became vegan overnight for ethical reasons. This change forced me to not only completely transform what I ate but also changed the way I purchased consumer goods made with leather or any animal skin for that matter.
Unlike my wife, Maša who waited until she wore down her leather products before discarding them, I couldn’t bear the thought of representing animal skin through what I owned. If not for anyone, for myself.
So I donated every leather product I had that was reasonable to do so. For instance, some of the fixtures in my car at the time was made of leather. But I didn’t sell it.
It’s interesting, though, because I didn’t realise just how much leather was a part of my life. Boxing gloves, furniture, bags, watch straps, phone cases, bike seats, amongst so many other things were made of leather. Once I was consciously aware of it, leather was seemingly everywhere.
But because I’m an impatient minimalist, I dove right in and got rid of all of my leather products. I was left to think about how I would replace these items with non-leather products.
If you’re vegan, you know how painful this process is at first. Do you think changing your diet is hard? Pfft! At least you can generally find out what each food product is made of. Unfortunately, when it comes to consumer goods, the labelling is not as clear.
Furthermore, when you’re used to a lifetime of treating yourself to “quality” leather, it’s honestly hard to find comparable animal-free alternatives.
Eventually, I found products, but with varying degrees of success. It’s an ongoing process, which I’m refining all the time.
So that’s why I’ve created this post. This article is a breakdown of what vegan leather is so you can make better-informed purchasing decisions that are in line with your vegan lifestyle.
But before we look at the different kinds of vegan leather, we need to touch on why leather isn’t a vegan-friendly product. It may seem obvious, but let’s not gloss over this part.
Why isn’t leather vegan?
Leather is made from the skin of animals and is therefore considered to be an animal product.
The simplified process of making leather goes like this:
- Kill the animal. Not much else to say here.
- Strip the animal carcass of its skin. There’s an art to doing this in a way that the skin doesn’t rip. Google “how to skin an animal” if you’re interested. There are lots of tutorials on how to hang an animal upside down and methodically use a knife and considerable force to peel its skin off the carcass.
- Dispose of the animal’s body. This means typically butchering the animals’ carcass for food. It’s worth mentioning that money is made at this point.
- Soak, wash, scrape the skin to get rid of the fur, fat, excess meat and anything else you find attached to the skin of sentient being. Again, at this point, you can sell the animal skin for money.
- Tan the skin. This means throwing the skin in a large barrel with added tanning agents to make the skin more commercially viable. Skin, like the rest of a body, naturally decomposes. So we add chemicals to the skin to preserve the material while also making it more durable and thicker for consumer use. It’s through this process, where deadly chemicals are mixed with the skin to cause not only harm to our health, but there’s a devastating effect on the environment. See images below of a typical tannery that is located in Morocco.
- After tanning, the skin is sent off to various suppliers (for money), who will then turn it into the immense variety of leather products that are on the market.
Isn’t leather a by-product of the meat industry?
Many consider leather to be a by-product of the meat industry. For example, we kill a cow primarily for meat, and if we’ve decided to kill the animal for consumption, we may as well use its skin to make leather while we’re at it.
While this may seem like a logical conclusion, there’s much more to consider from an economic standpoint.
First of all, as I explained above, after killing an animal, the first step in the meat production process is to skin the carcass. So even before any meat is made, the skin product is already sitting in a container (or on the bloody floor) available for sale.
Take a cow, for example. Economically, we’re looking at the total value of breeding and consuming a cow for commercial opportunities.
I don’t know about you, but if it were my job to maximise profits from my animal assets, I would associate value to every product I create from my animals.
And in the case of a cow, we make a TON of products. Take a dairy cow, for instance; it’s remarkable and horrifying just how much we’ve scaled and exploited only one animal for consumption.
So when you look at the profit pie chart of a cow, while meat and dairy are the largest revenue generators, it’s supported by dozens of other products.
When any business has multiple profit streams, we look at it as diversification, not a by-product.
Apple sells computers, phones, tablets, watches and headphones. We don’t say that the iPhone is a by-product of the Mac. No, we see them as two separate products within Apple’s portfolio.
So a more appropriate classification of leather as it relates to meat production would be a co-product. Leather is part of the cow revenue portfolio.
Whether leather makes up 1%, 5% or 20% of the total earning potential, it’s significant enough to be motivated to breed and slaughter more cows even for that percentage of money.
What about other animals we kill for leather?
Leather is made from just about any animal skin you can imagine—everything from pigs, goats, cats, dogs, kangaroos, rabbits, snakes, ostrich, crocodiles and whales.
Given the fact that we don’t generally eat every animal we kill for leather, there’s a direct motivation that lives outside of the co-product idea.
For example, trappers (hunters) make anywhere between $18,000 and $50,000 a year, hunting wild animals for their skins. It’s in their job description to become competent at tracking, murdering and skinning animals.
So in some cases, there’s a direct financial incentive to kill animals purely to produce leather, and I suppose for the sport of hunting animals?
The need for hunting is usually communicated as a procedure for culling pests and rodents to protect our environment and ecosystems. I’ll save further comments for another article.
The truth behind the leather industry
I could go on and on about the ethics behind the leather industry, beyond animal exploitation. Whether it’s the carcinogen chemicals used and transferred to our bodies, the harmful toxins expelled to our environment during production, and the horrific working conditions for the folks working in the industry.
There are little positives I can gather from the leather industry outside of the finished product.
But whether you want to call leather a co-product, by-product or direct product, there’s no hiding the fact that animals are exploited, slaughtered and monetised for their skin.
However, as a culture, we’ve become dependent on leather. Heck, I was hooked on leather before I was vegan. Even as a vegan, it’s hard to get away from the leather fabric. IT IS EVERYWHERE.
So what can we do to be mindful consumers and limit our support for such a destructive industry, without compromising the quality of life we experience when we use leather products?
That’s when vegan leathers come into play.
What is vegan leather?
Vegan leather is leather-like material produced in a way where no animals are directly exploited in the creation process.
The very nature of the term “vegan leather” is an oxymoron, much like vegan sausage or vegan beef. But I understand why it’s used as it’s a term that easily describes a non-animal variant of products we’re familiar with.
Vegan leather is also known as faux leather, pleather, alternative leather and synthetic leather.
What is vegan leather made from?
Much like how leather is made from the skins of different kinds of animals, vegan leather is made from a variety of non-animal materials.
Even though vegan leather is technically leather made without the exploitation of an animal, alternative fabrics are far from perfect.
Let’s explore the different kinds of vegan leather in more detail.
Vegan leather made from Polyvinyl Chloride, also known as PVC or Vinyl
PVC is an innovative and affordable plastic compound commonly used to create alternative leather products.
The plastic is softened with chemicals called plasticisers, which, without going into a science class, is a combination of alcohols, acids amongst other components.
PVC is made with approximately 57% chloride and 43% carbons, which, you guessed it, comes from oil/gas/petrol. So this magical material is predominantly made with fossil fuels—which is far from ideal.
Furthermore, as compared to animal leather which takes approximately 50 years to decompose, PVC takes upwards of 500 years, and even then, it breaks down into little micro-beads which get washed into our oceans.
Leather made from PVC is not generally referred to as vegan leather. As PVC is so widely used because of its affordability, it’s a material you’d find in cheap leather products.
For example, if you go to a general department store like Target and read on a shoe label, that it’s made with synthetic leather, it’s likely PVC.
Vegan leather made from Polyurethane, also known as PU
PU is another type of plastic used to create alternative leather products. In fact, I’d say that PU is the most commonly used material for products explicitly labelled as “vegan leather”.
Polyurethane is made by adding adhesive to polyester fabrics and like PVC is a mixture of plastic chemicals and petroleum compounds.
Unlike the thickness of PVC, PU utilises fewer layers and is, therefore, more bendy, soft and generally more leather-like than PVC.
That’s why you’ll see the likes of PU used vegan leather fashion including jackets, wallets, purses, backpacks amongst many other products.
PU is up to two and a half times more expensive than PVC but is still considerably cheaper than animal leather.
It’s important to be aware of the different types of PU leather materials.
For one, it’s common practice to mix animal leather with PU coating to form a hybrid leather material. This combination is often referred to as Bycast or Bicast leather.
So make sure to read your labels carefully, to see if the leather is a hybrid of animal skin and synthetics.
PU leather made more sustainably
After reviewing an array of vegan fashion businesses using PU in their products, I kept seeing a theme of products being produced in the European Union.
Why is the location of production important? Because the EU enforces strict environmental and ethical standards on businesses using PU to produce vegan leather.
Joshua Katcher, who we’ve interviewed before, is considered an expert in the field of ethical and sustainable fashion. He’s written a well-reviewed book called Fashion Animals and is the founder of a high-end vegan fashion store, Brave GentleMan.
His fashion line primarily uses PU in their vegan leather products.
On his about page, he goes on to explain why the PU they use is more sustainable than other kinds of PU.
“PU is made in a strictly controlled and regulated chemical process, during which only a few grams per ton of chemical is ever released into the environment. The final polyurethane polymer is chemically inert, and therefore harmless. PU is also biodegradable by way of fungus found in landfill and soil.”
Another example is vegan shoe retailer, Beyond Skin, who also explains that their shoes are using the latest PU leather technology which is strictly made and regulated in the EU.
From what I’ve researched, it appears that PU manufactured in the EU while far from perfect, has been the best compromise between making a material that closely resembles real animal leather, while somewhat limiting the environmental impact.
Vegan leather made from Piñatex
Piñatex is an alternative leather product made from the waste parts of a pineapple plant, mainly pineapple leaves.
Dr Carmen Hijosa is the woman responsible for bringing Piñatex to the market, with development starting in the 1990s in the Philippines.
Pineapple is an incredibly common crop in the Philippines, and Dr Hijosa noticed that the plant was creating a lot of waste. Pineapple leaves, for example, are usually burned or piled up to rot down naturally.
She saw an opportunity to turn these off-cuts into a sustainable leather alternative.
Furthermore, Piñatex has become a successful by-product of Pineapple farming in the Philippines, creating a secondary income source for farmers and supporting their economy.
How is Piñatex made?
Piñatex is made by stripping down pineapple leaves in a process called decortication. From there, fibres are then converted into mesh-like material, i.e. leather.
From what I discovered, no additional land, water, fertilisers or pesticides are used in the harvesting and production of Piñatex. Additionally, the biomass created in the decortication process is used for fertilisation, squeezing every last resource out of a pineapple plant.
See, just like how humans have found a way to turn a cow into dozens of products, we’re just as capable of doing the same thing with plants!
Is Piñatex biodegradable?
Although pineapple fibres are 100% biodegradable, the resins used in the coating are not. So it’s close, but not quite there yet.
According to the Piñatex website, they’re working on a bio-based coating to make the whole lifecycle sustainable.
What do products made with Piñatex look like?
After doing some digging around online, the finished products look quite premium. Check out some examples below.
Vegan leather made from cork
Cork leather is made from the bark of Cork Oak Trees that grow in the Mediterranean regions, including; Portugal, Spain and France.
Fun fact, the Cork Oak Tree is the national tree of Portugal!
So yes, the same material used to make wine stoppers, coasters and cork boards can be made into vegan leather.
How is cork leather made?
Here’s a quick breakdown of how cork leather is made:
- Workers (who are called extractors) methodically chip the bark off the oak tree forming cork sheets.
- Cork sheets are dried from their natural fluids and dampness and taken to the factory.
- The cork sheets are boiled to breakdown the structure to make it more shapable.
- Cork sheets are then dried out and shaved into fine thin sheets, much like tissue paper.
- The thin cork sheets are laminated to fabric using sealants and specialised techniques.
- Fabric protection spray is applied to the material to increase durability.
Benefits of cork leather
Cork leather is nothing short of amazing.
The fabric is incredibly durable, elastic and lightweight. Cork leather is also hypoallergenic, anti-fungal and waterproof.
Get this, cork, to an extent, is fire and flame resistant, as cork bark is naturally grown to protect oak trees from burning.
Is cork leather sustainable?
The oak tree is the only tree that survives even after the bark is stripped from the trunk. Furthermore, removing bark from oak trees encourages the plant to thrive and grow more.
After trees reach the age of 25, cork is harvested every 9 years, as it takes approximately that long for the tree to grow back its bark. Cyclical harvests can be conducted for the life of the tree, which is up to 300 years!
Now there are some considerations here as the oak tree needs its bark to protect itself against dehydration, fungus and insects. So there’s a balance and a level of care that’s required when harvesting the cork.
Outside of that consideration, cork is a sustainable material and a fantastic alternative to leather.
Here are some more quick facts about cork leather:
- Cork is produced without harming any animals or plants.
- There’s no need for the use of toxic chemicals when producing cork leather.
- Cork leather lasts for about 20 years without any signs of deterioration.
- Cork oak trees play a huge role in forests that support a variety of animal and plant species. This includes the endangered Liberian Lynx.
- Oak trees grow naturally in forests without the need to use pesticides or fertilisers.
What type of products are made with cork leather?
Cork leather is typically used to make handbags, wallets, luggage, shoes, umbrellas and upholstery.
However, the catalogue of cork-based products is growing as more producers look for sustainable and ethical ways to make products.
Vegan leather made from wine
Wine leather, also known as grape leather, is made from the accumulated waste in wine production.
Italian tech startup Vegea has a proprietary process of taking the core and shell (known as marc) of grapes and adding chemicals and compounds to produce a soft, supple alternative the animal leather.
Out of all of the vegan leathers I’ve mentioned so far, wine leather is by far the youngest product. Vegea was only founded in March 2018, and are still going through extensive testing before going to the greater market with their vegan leather.
Is wine leather sustainable?
Think about how massive the wine industry is. To put it in perspective, 26 billion litres of wine are produced each year. 26 billion!
Italy is famously known for its wine production, and it will come as no surprise that they are the largest producer, representing 18% of the global market.
According to Vegea, 10 litres of wine produces 2.5 kgs of waste (marc), which then produces 1 square meter of wine leather. So there’s potential to make over 2.5 billion square meters of wine leather each year. That’s a lot of vegan leather!
This is an incredibly intelligent way to turn waste into a quality consumer good. My only question is, how do they turn marc into a sheet of leather?
Vegea has a patented procedure to convert grape waste into leather, so we don’t really know what type of chemicals they use in the process. We do know that no animals are harmed or exploited, which is a plus.
But it’s still impressive nevertheless. Also, Vegea is promising to use its technology to take used wine leather and recycle it into new wine leather—creating a closed-loop supply chain.
What type of products are made with wine leather?
At this point, we don’t have any examples of products made from wine leather. I read that Vegea is working with H&M to pilot some products in the near future.
If the rollout goes as planned, this kind of innovation could disrupt the leather industry.
Vegan leather made from mushroom
Mushroom leather, also known as MuSkin, is a vegan alternative material made from the roots of the mushroom plant.
The roots are called mycelium, and some brilliant folks have found a way to feed and grow the mycelium cells into what is possibly the most durable vegan leather on the market.
Mycelium cells feed on bio-substrates like cellulose and grow. Check out the short video below for further explanation.
Features of mushroom leather
As I’ve mentioned already, mushroom leather is incredibly durable. Producers are experimenting with growing the matter into bricks for buildings! This brings me to the next point.
With such durable material, many people have high hopes to sustainably grow mycelium into various products far beyond leather alternatives. There’s talk about mushroom being the answer to plastic.
Apart from strength, mushroom leather is waterproof and is one of the safest materials to place on human bodies, due to the healing properties from the mushroom plant that’s been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
Is mushroom leather sustainable?
The great thing about mushroom leather is efficiency. You only need a fraction of the resources to grow mycelium when compared to the farmed animal industry.
For example, it only takes two weeks to grow mushroom leather to the size of a standard cowhide. Comparatively, it would take 2-3 years for a cow to grow to that size.
And yes, mushroom leather is also 100% biodegradable.
What products are made from mushroom leather?
Mushroom leather is used to make a variety of alternative products to animal-leather.
Shoes, watch straps, wallets, bags are all popular products you’ll find made with mushroom leather.
Other types of vegan leather
From my research, it felt like there were endless examples of innovative ways to replicate animal-leather in a cruelty-free and sustainable way.
There’s far too much to cover in a blog post, but I wanted to give a couple of honourable mentions, as you do your research for vegan leather.
Kombucha leather – is made from SCOBY bacteria used in making kombucha tea. Just keep in mind that beeswax is often used in the drying process of the SCOBY, so some forms may not be technically considered vegan.
Leaf leather – made from fallen teak leaves. The leaves are bonded with cotton fabric to create a durable leather-like material. Check out Tree Tribe to see the excellent products they’re creating from teak leaves.
The list of vegan leather fabrics also includes paper, waxed cotton, cool stone, tree bark, hemp plant and many more.
It’s an exciting time to have so many vegan leather materials hit the market. Entrepreneurs are finding creative ways to bring sustainable leather alternatives to consumers.
Sure, there’s a long way to go, but things are certainly heading in the right direction.
I should also mention that if you still want to source products made from genuine leather, you can always look at buying second-hand.
Hopefully, this post has given you an overview of vegan leather and how to start looking out for specific materials when supporting vegan and sustainable brands.
What has been your experience with vegan leather?
What’s been your experience trying to find alternative leather products? Has it been hard to find? What’s the performance like?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.