7 THINGS YOU’VE WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SYNTHETIC VEGAN LEATHER BUT NEVER DARED TO ASK
By Lora O’Brien
Whether you have gone vegan or are just looking for a cruelty-free alternative to animal by-products, you have probably heard the term ‘vegan leather’ or ‘pleather’ and wondered what on earth it is? After all, you are ditching leather yet buying something sharing its namesake, which can be confusing!
In this article, we’re going to cover everything you’ve ever wondered (and dared to not ask) about vegan leather. Does it smell fishy? Does it feel plasticky? Is it toxic?
Let’s start off with the most obvious one
1. WHAT IS VEGAN LEATHER?
The term ‘vegan leather’ can be used to describe alternative textiles to animal-based leather. Imitating authentic leather, vegan leather is made from a whole range of innovative materials, such as cactus, waxed cotton, pineapple leaves, apple waste, and recycled plastic including PET recycled bottles, bubble wrap, and even recycled Aluminium.
Vegan leather offers a cruelty-free alternative to conventional leather for those looking to ditch animal by-products and is an eco-friendly way to produce fashion and accessories without damaging the planet.
2. DOES IT SMELL FISHY?
When it comes to vegan leather, the initial raw material used to make it will determine the smell that it will have. Synthetic leather vegan material that is made from PVC or PU has often an artificial smell due to the plastic and chemicals used to make it which can be a bit fishy! The smell will eventually fade, but it can be a shock if you’re new to vegan materials.
Other natural vegan textiles can differ in smell. For example, pineapple-based leather otherwise known as piñatex, is odourless, while apple leather can have the subtle smell of green apples. Wanting it to have an authentic scent? Mushroom leather often mimics the scent of real leather.
3. DOES IT LOOK ‘FAKE’ COMPARED TO REAL LEATHER?
Wanting to use a more cruelty-free and ethical alternative to leather doesn’t mean you want to sacrifice the quality and appearance. You do not want your vegan leather accessories to look cheap. You want it to mimic the real thing, so I get the wonder of how vegan leather compares to real leather. Today, there are many companies creating vegan leather textiles from recycled plastic, so it’s worthwhile sourcing one of these over one made from PU.
Vegan fashion has come a long way, and overall, it can be hard to distinguish high-quality vegan leather from real leather. But it will depend on which origin of the raw material you’ve chosen to determine the quality and texture.
For example, synthetic leather will not form that rustic look that leather naturally has which develops with wear, therefore the ‘pores’ are printed onto the surface to give the appearance of real leather. This is great because it looks authentic, but it also makes the synthetic leather vegan bag material less breathable than genuine leather.
Yet there are some fabulous vegan leathers made from organic matter that has pores and the appearance of authentic leather, such as apple, mushroom, cork, and pineapple leather.
4. DOES THE TEXTURE OF VEGAN LEATHER DIFFER FROM ANIMAL LEATHER?
Many favour leather for its buttery-soft touch and think vegan leather is going to feel like cheap plastic. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Vegan leather is often more lightweight, flexible, and durable than authentic leather. These qualities made the textile easier to stitch, which can result in fashion and accessories that can last for many years.
The source of the vegan leather material will affect the outcome. Some examples of the most popular vegan leather and how they hold up against animal leather are below:
Pineapple leather: also known as piñatex, pineapple leather is soft and durable, and flexible.
Natural cork: cork leather is a sustainable vegan leather that is waterproof, stain-resistant, and easy to maintain. Cork has a unique finish and is soft to touch.
Mushroom leather: This leather is a textile crafted by Muskin, and the result is a supple leather-like material that mimics leather suede.
Recycled plastic: whether it’s plastic from the ocean or single-use plastic that we are throwing away in seconds, we’re now able to transform it into vegan leather. It’s cool to know that the plastic bottle you bought could turn into your next jacket or a pair of trainers!
PU: PU was the first real leather alternative, and it is often referred to as vinyl. When creating PU fabric, the fillers, lubricants, and plasticisers used to form the PVC originally are no longer needed, making leather a more environmentally friendly choice. Plus, it will eventually degrade over time.
5. DOES VEGAN LEATHER DAMAGE THE PLANET?
Whether or not you are vegan, the fact you’re looking for a cruelty-free alternative to leather will likely mean you care for the planet. While many vegan leather materials may not harm animals, they can harm the humans making them.
Vegan leather made from PVC-based synthetics are problematic due to the toxins in the plastics used to make them. The manufacturing lets out hazardous dioxins which can be harmful to our health if inhaled, plus they release toxic particles and phthalates that can also affect animals and the environment, too.
Due to the dangers of producing these plastics, they are most often outsourced in factories overseas, such as in China. Without proper regulations enforced, many workers are overworked, underpaid, and forced to work in dangerous environments, toxic to their health.
When it comes to sourcing your vegan leather, you should always remember: the way we spend our money speaks volumes for the world we want to live in. Focus on supporting brands that care about who makes their products, as well as what raw materials they are made from.
6. HOW DO I KNOW IF IT IS ETHICAL?
Research is key when it comes to sourcing vegan leather. A little research into a company and its ethos will tell you all you need to know about the products they produce. Many have jumped onto the ‘vegan leather’ bandwagon to cash in, but those who are passionate pay attention to every aspect of their business, from the materials to the hands who make them.
Well-known companies like Matt & Nat adhere to strict guidelines in place for their factories, and they’re really conscious about their environmental footprint, too. While most of their products are made from PU, they also incorporate recycled materials in their products, such as recycled plastic bottles, rubber, and cork.
An ethically responsible company will always be transparent about its manufacturing methods on its website. They will only be too willing to answer any questions, so if you are looking for an answer to something, you can narrow the gap by simply shooting them an e-mail to ask.
7. WHY IS IT EXPENSIVE?
Yet it’s hard to argue that it costs more to dress ethically than fast fashion. And one misconception when it comes to synthetic leather vegan textile is the price point, with many expecting it to cost drastically less than leather.
Granted, not all vegan leather is made equally, and much like anything in this world, there will always be cheaper products that have been cheaply made and are likely made from toxic chemicals which are not recyclable, which isn’t ideal for our planet.
But many of the innovative materials mentioned in this article have a higher price point because they’re new textiles, therefore time would have been taken to develop them and require more harder to build machinery to help make it. Not to mention that some raw materials are harder to collect and harvest, such as recycled plastic which needs to be collected, sorted, and cleaned before it can be transformed into a durable textile.
You may have reached this point and been asking yourself, ‘why don’t we just stick with genuine leather?’ Many even argue that it is far more ethical to utilise the entire animal and not just kill animals for meat, but leather products don’t always come from animals used for meat.
The leather and fur industry kills thousands of animals each year for the sole purpose of fashion. Factoring in that the livestock industry is already responsible for over 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions, the demand for fashion only increases further.
And though you may think genuine leather is far superior in terms of ethics, it is really not. Many consumers are unaware that animal leather has to go through a ‘tanning’ process where the animal skins are treated with a bunch of chemicals to prevent them from breaking down and growing mold. These chemicals are highly carcinogenic to workers, and they even find their way into our freshwater sources.
Eventually, the textile you choose will be what serves you and your values best, and I hope that this article provided the information needed to help guide you toward making the right decision. And if you haven’t been convinced at this point which leather is better, real or vegan, and you’re looking for further information, click here for more information about Remeant textile