The animal leather industry is a very large business and you probably have some concerns with how some (or all) of it is executed. As global awareness to animal rights rises, vegan friendly options spring up in all walks of life, from home produce, cosmetics, diet and in the fashion and accessory industry. More and more brands realize consumers’ objections to animals and environmental exploitation and offer products which integrate synthetic materials that would preserve the looks of leather, without the use of animal materials.
To answer this demand, many synthetic materials have been developed over the years to emulate leather and to be used in various products, also allowing to get the sought after look for cheaper. The names used for these materials are synonymous – vegan leather, faux leather, artificial leather or synthetic leather. All mean that these materials don't contain any animal products or by-products.
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Common materials and products
Faux leather is often used to make clothing, shoes, accessories (such as bags), upholstery and more. It often looks identical to real leather, and is much cheaper to manufacture. If you are looking at purchasing faux leather products, then you have probably already made your mind up against purchasing animals-based goods. The vegan then has two choices - synthetic or nothing.
The number of materials which are used to make faux leather clothes, shoes, bags and upholstery is increasing steadily. While none of these materials involves the use of animal products or by-products, each has differing impacts on the environment, and their quality varies greatly. If you are deciding to buy faux and vegan leather for environmental and ethical concerns, make sure you understand how these materials are made, so that they match your values.
Let's have a look at a few of the most popular materials which make of vegan leather:
- Paper: Yes, paper! With the right treatment (cardboard treated with natural oils and backed with canvas), paper can be as strong as leather.
- Cork: Cork has been used for decades as a water resistant, organic material is the fashion industry and is considered very ecological.
- Recycled Rubber: Some types of rubber have an texture and density very similar to leather, and can be used to make accessories and bags.
- Waxed Cotton: Waxed cotton is another great substitute for leather. It is flexible, water resistant and easily washable.
- Pinatex: A new material made of pineapple leaves waste. It is water resistant, durable, and feels like cow leather.
- Vegetan: A microfiber material that is designed as an animal-friendly leather substitute.
- PVC: PVC is a well-known material used in the process of making artificial leather - it has been popular in the fashion industry for years. While it is perfect from the animal rights perspective, it is not biodegradable and is known to have a severe impact on the environment.
- Pleather: Made of polyurethane (which we’ll elaborate about soon), this is a popular slang for petroleum-based synthetic leather. It is often used in upholstery (furniture and cars) and in the fashion industry, as it is very easy to give it different colors and textures.
- Kydex: This is an acrylic-PVC alloy. It’s waterproof and scratch resistant and produced by Kleerdex, a chemical and plastics manufacturing company. Like PVC, it is considered harmful for the environment.
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Downsides of petroleum-based faux leather
We have outlined above some of the most popular materials used in faux and vegan leather - but some other materials are often used. Materials used in vegan fashion come from varied sources, such as cork, paper, and waxed cotton. The last two substances are the most commonly used in synthetic leather and the ones with the biggest environmental impact.
PVC has been the relied-upon faux leather material for many years. However, it has fallen out of favour recently. The concerns with PVC relate to the chemical processes involved in its manufacture. Additionally, worries have arisen because PVC contains dioxins which, when burnt, are released to the atmosphere and are hazardous to humans.
Adding to PVC worries are phthalates. PVC requires plasticizers’ (additives that give plastics their softness) which are added to the chemical composition to make it flexible, and particularly for PVC fashion items. A number of phthalates have been banned in some countries, because under some conditions they can leak toxins. These toxins can come out after prolonged exposure to the sun or contact with human saliva, very worrying for any PVC toys with small children. As all PVC types use varying amounts phthalates, the amount of toxicity in PVC products varies quite a lot yet some level is always present.
As with PVC, polyurethane is a popular alternative to animal-based leather materials. However, just like PVC, polyurethane also carries environmental worries. Due to the complex chemistry behind PVC, prices in the supply chain often rise and therefore allow certain manufacturers to create products with varying quality and performance.
If you are particularly concerned by environmental consequences to your fashion accessories, the chief concern you will be worried about with polyurethane are the solvents used in its manufacture. Polyurethane required painting it on fabric. This process uses solvents which are highly toxic. These solvents then need to be disposed of somehow.
Newer methods of creating polyurethane use a waterborne coating, which certainly helps with environmental cleanup. However, as with all artificial leathers, polyurethane is only part of the supply chain, which comprises of many steps in a complex process that carries with it a high chance of some suppliers not disposing of waste products soundly.
For anyone who is concerned about animal welfare, it is hardly an argument for or against leather - all leather is a no-go. For those looking for vegan accessories due to the environmental impact of leather, the case is more complicated.
How to tell the difference between faux leather and real leather
There are several ways to tell the difference between faux leather and real leather:
- The labels – products made of real leather would state it proudly on the label. Vegan/eco brands would state just as proudly their use of sustainable, animal friendly materials.
- Take a close look at the pores – while in faux leather the pores are usually placed in a consistent pattern, in real leather the pores are more randomly placed.
- Touch the material – if it’s too smooth or feels like plastic, it probably is.
- Smell – Real leather products have a distinctive smell which would probably smell very bad for a vegan’s nose.
(Image source: wikihow)
Today, as the awareness to animal rights, ethical consumerism and sustainability as a whole rises, there are more and more alternatives to the uses of leather in the fashion industry. Faux leather, artificial leather, synthetic leather and vegan leather are synonymous for the use of alternative materials which imitate the looks and feels of animal hides.
It is important to distinguish between natural materials, and those based on petroleum oil. Some of the natural materials, such as cork, paper and waxed cotton, have been in use for decades, whereas others are more novel, made of recycled rubber, pineapple leftovers, mushrooms, kelp (sometimes called ocean leather) and even bananas! The manufacturing process of these materials is significantly more eco-friendly when compared to plastics, and may also involve recycling of waste materials.
Petroleum-based materials (plastics) however, require polluting processing (polyurethane), and are considered hazardous to human health and the environment (PVC).
Most faux leather materials are substantially cheaper than real leather products. In terms of quality, artificial leathers vary widely, so it’s important to do your research on items you will feel comfortable with. As to their looks, many faux leather products emulate the authentic leather look quite well, of course, depending on their quality. In general, faux leather products tend to wear out and crack faster and differently than real leather items, but this depends highly on their quality. High quality faux leather products would also require treatment similar to real leather’s to keep them in good condition.
To sum it up, if you’re looking for sustainable leather alternatives, don’t just look for the vegan title, but also make sure that the material is not petroleum based.