vegan leather

The Ultimate Guide To Vegan Leather - How It's Made, Alternatives & Is It REALLY Better Than The Real Thing?

Whichever way you spin it, the majority of the oh-so-fashionable shoes and handbags on the market are still made from dead animals...

Historically, leather and wool were necessities to keep humans warm in harsh climates.

But not anymore. 

Now the age of technology gives us access to an extensive supply of high- and low-tech animal-free materials. 

You can easily join the growing hordes of compassionate souls opting for the more sustainable, kind, and fashion forward vegan leather alternatives–without sacrificing style.

Here is your ultimate guide to vegan leather: the future of fashion.

What is Vegan Leather?

Vegan leather is a cruelty-free alternative to the horrific reality of the traditional leather industry. 

There are many types of vegan leathers, with some created out of synthetic materials such as polyurethane while others are reshaped from natural sources. 

Companies are continually researching and expanding the array of materials they can shape into a textile with a sparkle, glossy sheen, matte finish, or smooth leather look to fit any demand from the trendiest of consumers.

Synthetic PU leather

Is Vegan Leather Eco-Friendly?

Clean plastic bottles

It can be.

Companies market vegan leather as the ideal solution to the toxic leather industry; however, the environmental impacts of synthetic materials aren’t insignificant. 

Luckily, natural leather alternatives CAN have a negative carbon footprint, repurpose waste material, and have a minimal toxic footprint.

More on this in a bit...

Types of Vegan Leather

Full Synthetic Vegan Leather

Most of the vegan leather alternatives available today are created from synthetic materials such as polyurethane, micro suede, and polyvinyl chloride. The synthetic leather production is toxic. There are additional concerns that polyurethane can leach phthalates into the surrounding environment and release many hazardous chemicals when burnt. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/aarhus/pdf/35/Annex_11_report_from_Lowell_Center.pdf 

synthetic flip flops

This leaching is said to be accelerated by direct sunlight and contact with saltwater. 

In addition, both polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride are not biodegradable and take upwards of several hundreds of years to decompose naturally. 

While they won’t break down into the earth, these plastic leathers age less gracefully than animal leather counterparts, potentially gaining frayed edges, or flakes.

Upcycled Plastic Bottle Leather

One of the biggest trends growing is upcycling of plastics collected in the ocean in the form of bottles and fishing nets into shoes, clothing, and bags. 

Several designers have jumped on board this train to create leather looking bags out of these materials. 

While it does close the loop and minimize the need for virgin materials, there are still concerns about the impacts of reprocessed plastics shedding even more microplastics. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es201811s 

plastic luggage

Microplastics come free with every wash from any synthetic clothing including upcycled plastic materials. The most recent study shows that there are 5 trillion pieces of plastics in the ocean, with every wash cycle dislodging thousands of microscopic plastic particles traveling through our waterways.  https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111913

Considering bags and shoes do not often go through the wash, moving plastic bottles from the ocean to over your shoulder might not be a bad idea.

Natural Material Vegan Leather

Luckily, designers and innovators have found methods of converting cork, kelp, pineapple leaves, apple peel, and even mushroom mycelium into sustainable alternatives to leather.

Cork Leather

Cork leather is a beautiful material made from the bark of the cork oak tree. It is durable, has a unique look with the additional benefits of being waterproof, stain resistant and easy to maintain.

To create cork leather, farmers need to wait for a cork tree to mature for 25 years. Then they harvest it for the first time. This first harvest is unusable, and the cork leather used for fashion is collected a whole 9 years later. 

cork leather bag

The bark is removed from the tree and left to dry for six months. After this, it is steamed and boiled to improve elasticity before it is cut into thin strips. 

The resulting textile is ready to be fashioned into consumer products. One of the biggest benefits of cork leather, is that during the 9 years the cork tree spends rebuilding its outer bark layer, it absorbs 3-5 times more carbon dioxide. (https://goblackwood.co.uk/cork-leather/)

Seaweed Leather

Dried kelp has been used to imitate materials such as paper, plastic, and increasingly now as leather. 

Its translucency and sustainable sourcing makes it a fantastic alternative to animal leather.

One form of kelp leather is created by mixing seaweed with cellulose. It is then dried and shaped into the desired final product. 

sun dried kelp

A surprising and positive effect, on top of the sustainability and abundance of seaweed, is that the wearer can absorb vitamin E directly into their skin by wearing kelp leather products. (http://www.nanonic.us/smartcel-Seacell.html)

Pineapple Leather

Pineapple leaves are considered a waste on pineapple plantations. 

By using this byproduct and repurposing it into leather it creates minimal environmental impact and adds more jobs to farming communities.

Clothing made of pineapple fibers

The long fibers which make up pineapple leaves are collected from the plantations with automated decorticating machines. The part of the leaf which is not used for the leather is returned to the earth, to replenish it with nutrients. 

The leftover fibers are degummed and processed to make an unwoven mesh. These meshes then undergo a finishing process to give them a leather like, soft, flexible, and durable look. (https://www.ananas-anam.com/about-us/

Apple Peel Leather

Apple Peel Skin is another sustainable hybrid material which incorporates apple skin into producing an environmentally friendly leather. 

fresh apples

https://www.appleninealliance.com/apple-peel

It is a relatively new technology which is being continually researched and expanded on.

Banana Leather

Just like pineapple castoffs from the farming process, banana tree waste has been upcycled into vegan leather wallets. 

Banana trees require a LOT of work and maintenance, and the trees must be cut down completely and replanted every year. 

Banana peel paper wallet

The large amount of banana leaf waste is typically left behind to biodegrade. 

Now this waste has been repurposed to create treasure out of trash by making strong, water resistant banana material which can be used for bags, wallets, and more. http://agreenliving.org/see-how-banana-trees-are-recycled-into-vegan-leather-wallets-in-micronesia/

Mushroom Leather

Mushroom mycelium has the enormous benefit of growing fast, requiring minimal water, and is produced in a carbon-negative process. The resulting material feels and performs like leather. (https://www.mycoworks.com/)

patterned brown bag

One of the massive benefits of this strong, flexible, water resistant, and durable materials is that it can be uniquely customizable. 

It is made of natural fibers that can grow into any size or shape. Additional textures can be added during the growing process to change the feel and look of the leather. 

In comparison to animal leather, it also takes a fraction of the time and resources to grow a mushroom, requires no post-production and is truly the future of fashion.

Lab Grown Leather

https://www.inc.com/magazine/201804/alden-wicker/prototype-modern-meadow-lab-grown-leather.html

Just like some vegan meat, scientists have now figured out how to create animal skin leather in the lab. Unfortunately for now, the fabric can only be created in small quantities; however, the growing demand for animal free products could quickly change that. 

bright pink wicker bag

The lab can grow ‘leather’ in varying colours, thicknesses, and textures all without the downsides of killing an animal or the amount of resources required to keep it alive until harvesting. 

This material will be able to be used in cars, clothing, plane interiors, and furniture. With growing consumer interest, there is nowhere this vegan leather product cannot go.

The lab grown leather is created through a process similar to brewing beer. Gene-edited yeast is used to eat sugar and create collagen. Then the collagen is harvested and turned from a liquid into a solid fibrous material. 

This entire process takes two weeks, which is significantly more efficient and cost effective than the traditional leather process.

What Is It Used For?

Leather is one of the materials which has followed our society closely from the dawn of mankind. 

Shoes, boots, jackets, belts, handbags and wallets are just the start of our dependence on leather. 

old couch and jute bags

Furniture is made of leather, finishing on expensive designer items are leather crafted, and many cars sell leather interiors as their luxury option. 

Ferrari, BMW, Porcha, and just about any other big brand you can think of offers this option. As of 2017, Tesla has produced only vegan seats. They are not perfect, as the steering wheel still has leather wrapping, which can be changed upon request.

If you look around your room, I can almost guarantee you will spot at least two things which have some leather on them. In the room I am sitting in, there are seat cushions, leather shoes and the handle to a wooden box.

Vegan Leather Alternatives

If you do not wish to purchase synthetic vegan alternatives and rather opt for natural and budget friendly options, you can always stick to simple materials.

flax bags on display

Bags, shoes, and just about anything can also be made from cotton, hemp, flax, jute, and linen.

Top Vegan Leather Fashion Brands

Stella McCartney

https://www.stellamccartney.com/us

This incredible designer was one of the pioneers to bring vegan ethics into high fashion. Her collections include everything from bags, shoes, along with clothing.

Stella boots

LaBante

https://labante.com/

This vegan bag range is created from recycled plastic bottles and vegetable fibres. An additional benefit of purchasing from this brand is that 10% of the proceeds go directly to a charity of the buyer’s choice.

Labante bags

Denise Roobol

https://deniseroobol.com/

These vegan bags have a stunning minimalist design and are made from high tech materials which are sourced sustainably.

Denise Roobol bag

Nemanti Shoes

https://www.nemanti.com/

If you are looking for stunning shoes from the world centre of shoes—Italy—then Nemanti Shoes are the ones for you. 

They are strappy, sexy, and virtually indistinguishable from real leather.

a pair of Nemanti shoes

Matt & Nat

https://mattandnat.com/

This bag brand name combines MATerials with NATure to create fantastic staple pieces while focusing on sustainable methods and supporting the environment. 

They use recycled materials including recycled nylon, cardboard, cork, and rubber.

hand bag from Mat & Nat

Melie Bianco

https://www.meliebianco.com/

This cruelty free fashion line began in 2003 and has grown to an empire, featuring cruelty-free and affordable high-end bags. The bags feature premium faux leather and have simple, yet classic designs.

Melie Bianco bag

Jill Milan

https://www.jillmilan.com/

These bags have been seen in the most fashionable restaurants, hotels, and clubs all over the world. The designs feature classical styles made with high-quality Italian construction. 

Overall a fantastic vegan bag option to bring to any event or celebration.

Jill Milan bag

Maintaining and Caring for Vegan Leather

Red wipe for wet leather

Polyurethane

To care for your polyurethane faux leather, all you need to do is to soak a cloth sponge and wipe the debris off. Warm water and gentle wiping will be enough to remove dust or debris from your shoes or bags. 

If you have a larger or more stubborn bit of dirt on your accessories just grab a bar of soap and scrub the grime. Once you feel the stain has eased off, grab a damp cloth and wipe any remaining soap to avoid it from damaging the material.

Vinyl

If you are dealing with dirty Vinyl leather, you just need to grab a vacuum and remove any dust, particles, or dirt. Typically, sofas and other furniture are made from vinyl. 

Then use a specific vinyl cleaner on the surface and let sit. After a minute use a soft brush on the surface and by using circular strokes remove any of the dirt. To finish off, wipe down with a clean towel and spray vinyl protectant.

Micro Suede

If you have micro suede, make sure to remove dust, pet hair, and dirt every week with a vacuum. If you do not, the small particles can get embedded in the material and cause premature wear which ruins the material. 

An additional tip to keep your micro suede in top shape is to keep it out of direct sunlight, quickly mop up spills, and clean stains with warm water immediately.

Is Vegan Leather Durable?

It can be. We have found leather in ancient tombs, showing how durable and long lasting it is. One of the concerns many people have with vegan leather alternatives is that they are less durable.

We all have had those cheap leather imitation purses which broke down very quickly.

couple wearing pairs of  shoes

Synthetic vs Natural

Synthetic leather is essentially plastic and can be made as high or low quality as the manufacturer wishes. This means some forms of synthetic vegan leather are extremely durable, while others start degrading within months of use.

Natural vegan leather alternatives such as cork, pineapple, or mycelium mushroom; however, are not only natural, require less chemical processing than both animal leather and synthetic leather, but are also notably durable.

Is Vegan Leather Eco-Friendly?

person holding a handful of moss with both hands

Vegan leather is more eco-friendly than animal leather. 

We know that animal leather is certainly not sustainable or environmentally friendly, but how do the vegan counterparts hold up against it? 

Let’s have a quick comparison.

Animal Leather

Pros:

  • Is an extremely versatile and affordable material

Cons:

  • The enormous carbon footprint of animal agriculture
  • Leather is not a by-product of the meat industry as often believed, since the skin of the cows must have minimal blemishes which does not typically happen in the beef or dairy industry.
  • The tanning process involves many harsh chemicals (including Chrome) which leach into the surrounding environment, water systems, and poison the people and animals in the area.
  • The chemicals used in the animal agriculture and tanning industry lead to the oceans where they suffocate animals by depleting oxygen levels and creating dead zones.
  • Due to the toxic tanning process, the animal leather biodegrades slowly and when it does, it leaches the chemicals from that process into the earth.

Synthetic Leather

Pros:

  • An affordable alternative to animal leather
  • Does not have the environmental footprint of an animal reared and killed for leather
  • There is no toxic tanning process

Cons:

  • It is a microfibre made from petroleum oil, which is a non-renewable resource
  • It requires large amounts of chemicals and processing to manufacture
  • It can leach phthalates into the environment
  • Shedding microplastics can end up in waterways and the ocean
  • It is non-biodegradable

Natural Leather

Pros:

  • Is made from natural materials which have a lesser environmental footprint
  • Materials such as pineapple or banana leaves are readily available by-products of an existing industry
  • Creates durable and high-quality material
  • Plant based leather provides new jobs in farming communities
  • The growth of veganism is driving down prices and pushing innovation
  • Materials such as cork are carbon negative, meaning they sequester more carbon dioxide than they produce

Cons:

  • It is a relatively new industry, so start-up costs are high

So, Why Should You Support Vegan Leather?

To help the planet and the animals, investing in vegan leather alternatives is a definite way to go. 

You have a choice from an abundant number of talented designers with cruelty-free options growing in popularity on the runways every single year.

If you are concerned about the environmental impacts of synthetic leather, opt for the natural alternatives which help our planet, the workers, and create demand to drive future prices down.

There is simply no downside in voting with your wallet for a stylish, natural, plant-based leather bag.


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