Most people know that adopting a vegan lifestyle means forgoing meat and other animal products, but not everyone is aware that going TRULY vegan means cutting out every trace of animal cruelty from your life for good-including your closet.
For this reason, true vegans turn away from leather in search of more ethical alternatives.
Many times, the alternative comes in ‘plastic leather’, also known as pleather, or vegan leather.
Plastic based leather products have come a long ways since the 1960s, but there’s still a lot of misconception about what these products really are. If you’re looking to have your questions answered about this cruelty-free animal skin alternative, this article will provide the answers you’re looking for.
WHAT IS VEGAN LEATHER?
Often made with a variety of materials that can include glazed cotton, paper, bark, cork, and various types of plastic, it’s easier to define vegan leather by what it’s not – animal skins.
Vegan leather is designed specifically for people that love the look of leather but can’t commit to wearing anything that’s an indicator of animal cruelty.
Almost any wardrobe accessory can be made from pleather, including skirts, jackets, boots, handbags and more. Most vegan leather is made from synthetic materials that are formulated to have a similar texture to true leather, often making it almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
There are a few main formulations of vegan leather that are more popular than most, including the following.
- Vegetan: This microfiber-based material is designed to have the same look and feel of regular leather.
- Lorica: Manufactured by the Italian company Lorica Sud, this artificial leather is often used for horse riding boots and is made with different microfibers to have a more natural give.
- Birko-Flor: Used to make animal-friendly Birkenstocks and other shoes, this material is acrylic and made from polyamide felt fibers.
- Kydex: As an acrylic-PVC alloy, kydex is made by Kleerdex as a leather substitute for holsters, knife cases and sheaths.
- PVC (polyvinyl chloride): One of the first materials used for manufacturing vegan leather, PVC is more commonly called “vinyl clothing”.
- Polyurethane: As the most popular alternative to PVC-based leather today, polyurethane can be produced to create multiple different textures and hues for a variety of looks. Because it is softer and more comfortable than other forms of vegan leather, polyurethane is often used for clothes.
Most leather substitutes can be used to make everything from shoes to pillow cushions, and it’s actually much cheaper to make than real leather products. For this reason, plastic-based leather gained a reputation as a cheap knock off material in the 1960s before getting rebranded by vegans eager for an ethical option.
Today, many high fashion designers rely on vegan leather, and the material is increasingly trendy.
HOW IS VEGAN LEATHER MADE?
Today, vegan leather is produced using a wide variety of chemicals and different industrial practices to create the specific looks needed for individual products. The process usually involves bonding together a thin plastic coating to an animal product-free fabric to make it easier to stick together for sewing into different clothing and accessories.
Today, there are different ways to apply this coating to fabric backings that can resist more wear and tear and look new for longer, making faux garments better quality and lower priced than before.
A more popular, less damaging form of plastic is polyurethane, though the more complicated manufacturing process tends to raise the price tag on PU-made products.
Polyurethane is made from plastic bonded to a breathable cotton coating, making it more comfortable to wear.
Most polyurethane made today has a waterborne coating that makes it less damaging to the environment than PVC, though solvents are used in the manufacturing process that can be highly toxic to the people exposed to the chemicals in their liquid form.
However, the tanning process for most leather products can be equally damaging to factory workers, as they often expose them to coal-tar derivatives, formaldehyde, and even occasionally a cyanide base. This means that plastic-based leather products aren’t necessarily worse than the alternative.
Recently, a new form of polyurethane has come on the market that relies on 100% recycled material and uses a plant-based finish instead of oil. This is more sustainable in the long run and considered to be healthier for its manufacturers as well.
In general, high quality vegan leather looks little different than the real thing, and a variety of manufacturing techniques means that it can be utilized in almost any way that genuine leather is used.
Because of its plastic base, most vegan leathers have a chemical like, almost fishy scent that occasionally takes a while to dissipate.
Vegan leather can be formulated to take on almost any appearance, meaning that there is rarely much difference between high quality faux leather and the real thing.
However, vegan leather starts to look different as it ages. Because it is made from synthetic materials, vegan leather won’t form a patina with use.
In the same way, vegan leather tends to be less durable because it is often thinner and more lightweight. While high quality cow leather can last decades, it’s usually lucky to get a year of use out of vegan leather shoes.
Vegan leather is thinner than the regular variety, making it ideal for keeping up with ever changing fashion trends. However, it can make you feel sweaty from lack of breathability.
Making leather from plastic polymers is far cheaper than using animal skins, meaning that vegan products are consistently cheaper than the alternative. However, the cost of vegan leather is going up as it continues to be considered an essential for high fashion.
ENVIRONMENT IMPACT OF VEGAN LEATHER
Vegan leather might offer a cruelty free option for animal lovers, but is it really better for the environment? While the term “vegan” might imply but faux leather is a step ahead for the good of the planet, the actual facts tell a different story.
PVC was long used as the standard for vegan leather products, but it has largely fallen out of favor due to its environmental toxicity and proneness to catching on fire. However, today’s alternatives aren’t necessarily much better. Polyurethane is known to produce hazardous toxins when it is manufactured, and the regulations for its production can vary considerable from one country to another.
Ultimately, cow leather may be better for the environment than any plastic alternatives.
The key to environmental sustainability is creating products within a closed-loop system, meaning that the product can be fully taken apart or decomposed at the end of its lifespan without harming the environment.
While polyurethane products tend to wear out faster than leather ones, they don’t break down into the environment in the same way. Because leather is essentially an animal carcass, it decomposes and nourishes the ground around it in the process.
Alternatively, plastic polymers simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces that can contaminate soil, water systems and more for thousands of years.
VEGAN LEATHER, REAL LEATHER, OR SOMETHING ELSE?
Is vegan leather better or worse than actual leather?
The truth is that the answer to this question depends on who you ask. For vegans that consider the welfare of animals to be their highest ethical concern, it’s better to invest in plastic options.
Yet, for those that care about the sustainability of the planet, forgoing plastic alternatives for animal based skins that will naturally break down when no longer need might be a better option.
And if you care about both?
It might be better to turn away from leather products altogether and invest in fully natural forms of fabric instead, like cotton.
The news isn’t all bad for vegan leather products. New materials are being researched and developed all the time, including fibers made with pineapple leaves, fruit leather and more. These products mimic the ‘closed loop’ system of animal hide and hold tremendous potential for providing a fashionable alternative for vegan clothing enthusiasts.
MAINTAINING VEGAN LEATHER
Already own vegan leather? You can lessen its environmental impact by using it for as long as possible. Vegan leather might be structurally different than regular leather, but it still needs regular maintenance to stay in top shape.
Because vegan leather is manufactured with a plastic coating, it is naturally waterproof. This makes it easy to clean with a mild detergent or by wiping the surfaces with a damp cloth.
However, conditioning products won’t make a difference dryness or cracks, so make sure to keep plastic leather products out of the sun.
While you CAN iron vegan leather, it’s essential that you never put the iron directly on the material.
Instead, the material is best steamed or ironed between two layers of less sensitive fabric, like cotton.
It’s also important to take care not to heat any part of vegan leather for more than thirty seconds at a time.
SHRINKING VEGAN LEATHER
Shrinking vegan leather is also possible.
To shrink a polyurethane item, wash it and put it in an old pillowcase that’s tied with a piece of string to keep it contained. Put it in the dryer on high, and let it cycle for an hour. Allow the jacket to cool off before trying it on.
If it fits, great! If not, you can repeat the process until it does.
To repair fake leather or add your own design elements, you can buy a faux leather repair kit online that’s suited to the kind of leather that you have. These kits are a great way to extend the lifespan of a product and add a personal touch as well.
PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER
For an animal lover that wishes to remain fashionable, vegan leather offers an attractive, durable alternative to wearing animal skins. While this product isn’t without some major concerns for the environment, vegan leather is still a viable form a fashionable material.
What are your thoughts on vegan leather? Does it work for you, or do you find yourself reaching for more breathable options instead? We want to hear your experience, especially if you have some vegan leather brands you recommend.
If you have a suggestion to share with our readers, drop it in the comments and we’ll be sure to get back to you!