Vegan Leather Guide: Sustainable, Eco-Friendly, Faux, and More

Vegan Leather Guide
Vegan coffee leather, pineapple fibers used to make Piñatex®, and vintage vinyl automotive upholstery.

Most of us have heard of vegan leather, and most of us know that it’s not made with animal skin. However, there’s still a fair amount of confusion about it. After all, “faux leather” is nothing new, so what’s the big deal about vegan leather? And is vegan leather eco-friendly? It turns out that vegan leather can mean different things to different people. And currently, it’s undergoing a metamorphosis.

Vegan leather definitely includes faux leather, but as the vegan movements picks up steam, it’s beginning to include much more. As veganism becomes increasingly associated with an eco-friendly lifestyle, it’s only natural to include a whole range of new sustainable leather alternatives under the vegan leather umbrella. The groundswell of innovation in materials is only gaining momentum.

Vegan Leather

I thought I’d start with the broader topic of vegan leather since it can be a bit of a confusing term. While the definition is up for debate, I describe vegan leather as any leather alternative that is not derived from animals. Here are some common questions asked about vegan leather:

What is vegan leather made with?

Traditionally, vegans relied on faux leather for animal-friendly clothing, shoes, and accessories. Faux leather is a synthetic material that’s made with petroleum-based materials, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU).

Many vegan designers, such as Melie Bianco, prefer PU vegan leather because it’s extremely versatile and it has a lighter environmental footprint than PVC. However, since PU is a petroleum-based product, it’s definitely not environmentally sustainable.

Is vegan leather ethical?

Whether vegan leather is ethical or not depends on the materials used to manufacture it, as well as the health and safety conditions of the workers who are making it. Both of these aspects vary by material and manufacturer. Thus, understanding the source of the materials that go into your handbags, shoes, and other items is important. This is where branding plays a vital role.

Designers and material manufacturers who are transparent about the environmental footprint of their products, manufacturing process, and supply chains are the best options. They’ll also stress the importance of taking care of their workers. A company like Wills Vegan Shoes is a good example.

Some brands have environmental certifications, such as OEKO-TEX®, and labor ethics certifications, such as Fair Trade Certified, but not all do. Sometimes it takes messaging a brand’s customer support team on their website or via social media to seek out answers. If they’re not forthcoming, look for alternative brands.

Is vegan leather the same as faux leather?

Faux leather is a subset of vegan leather. However, vegan leather also includes a wide range of leather alternatives. The common theme is that they do not use or exploit animals in any way.

Is vegan leather the same as PU leather?

As with faux leather, vegan leather includes PU leather. However, it also includes other leather alternatives that are not made with animals.

Is vegan leather durable?

Vegan leathers can be quite durable, though they don’t break in the same way that leather from animal skin does. Some vegan leathers break in better than others. How long the items last depends on the ingredients in the materials.

We all want clothing, shoes, and accessories that withstand their use. However, there are environmental advantages to materials that will breakdown in the environment and that will not leave a toxic residue when they do.

Is vegan leather eco-friendly?

Some vegan leathers, such as cork leather and pineapple leather, are eco-friendly. However, vegan leathers that are made with petroleum-based materials, such as PU and PVC, are not.

Is vegan leather biodegradable?

Backyard compost bin
Backyard compost bin.

Defining whether a material is biodegradable or not depends on its ability to degrade in the natural environment as a result of biological activity. How long this takes and under what environmental conditions is an important factor for consideration. Eventually, everything breaks down, but what kind of timeline is acceptable?

When it comes to vegan leathers, the question of biodegradability depends on the materials used. In general, fossil-fuel-based materials are not considered biodegradable while plantbased materials are more so. The other thing to consider is the chemicals and additional materials used in the items, such as adhesives, dyes, hardware, linings, and more.

Different industries have different standards for biodegradability. Thus, it’s up to manufacturers to test the biodegradability of their products, get certifications, and share this information with their customers. But it certainly doesn’t hurt for consumers to let designers and product makers know that this information is important to them.

Is real leather eco-friendly because it’s natural?

Before I get into more details about faux leather, I thought I’d clear up one common misconception. There’s a false impression among many leather wearers that leather is a natural product. Therefore it must be environmentally-friendly. If we were wearing animals skins like our ancestors did in the caveman days, those skins would be biodegradable.

However, for the very reason that skin decomposes, leather has to be treated with chemicals such as formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) so it won’t decompose easily. Furthermore, tanning leather (which involves treating it with chemicals so it doesn’t decompose and dying it) is a toxic process that uses a range of chemicals that are not healthy for workers.

Another common misconception about leather is that it comes from the hides of animals who are eaten, therefore wearing leather eliminates waste. In fact, many animals, including cows, are bred solely for the purpose of exploiting them for their skin.

Faux Leather

Vinyl faux leather auto upholstery
Vintage vinyl faux leather car seats.

History of Artificial Leather

In the late 1800s, a German chemist named Eugen Baumann created a petroleum-based plastic polymer, which became polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Soon after, manufacturers started experimenting with the compound. In the 1920s, a researcher at BF Goodrich discovered a way to plasticize PVC, creating a material that was the precursor to vinyl.

As the material evolved, product designers and manufacturers began using it in a range of products, from shoes to automotive upholstery. So, vinyl was one of the first leather alternatives on the market. By the 1950s, DuPont started experimenting with an off-shoot of PVC, which became polyurethane, or PU.

These new materials were durable, versatile, and easy to clean. New names, such as “pleather” (short for plastic and leather) and “leatherette,” entered the mainstream vernacular. However, as plastic-based compounds, these materials would not biodegrade in the environment and a lot of chemicals were used in their creation.

What is faux leather?

Faux leather includes fake leathers that are made with fossil fuel-derived plastics, including PVC and PU. It’s made by applying and bonding a layer of PVC or PU to a layer of fabric. Designers began to experiment with PVC-based faux leather in the ‘20s.

Eventually, innovations like embossed faux leathers and faux suede became popular. The new materials were less expensive than leather derived from animal skin. Plus, they were durable and easy to clean.

The Problem with PVC-based Faux Leather

While faux leather is less expensive than traditional leather, it carries a substantial environmental footprint. For one, it requires a lot of energy to produce, which causes greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, when it’s manufactured, PVC releases carcinogenic chemicals called dioxins into the atmosphere.

These chemicals are unhealthy for workers who are producing the material, particularly in an enclosed space. Furthermore, to make the material soft and flexible, manufacturers use phthalate plasticizers, which have been connected to endocrine disorders and cancer.

The other problem is that the release of toxic chemicals doesn’t end at manufacturing. Throughout the product lifecycle, PVC-based faux leather continues to emit harmful chemicals. And as a plastic-based product, it takes centuries to decompose. Then, when it does breakdown, toxic chemicals are emitted into the environment.

Can you recycle faux leather?

Faux leather is not recyclable. Nor is it easily upcycled. And if it’s burned, it releases toxic chemicals into the environment. The best thing you can do with an item made with faux leather when you no longer want it is to donate it or sell it online or to a thrift store, so someone else can get use out of it.

Polyurethane (PU) Leather

What is PU?

PU is another plastic-based leather alternative that has become more popular than PVC-based faux leather. Not only is it softer and more flexible, it’s less toxic than PVC-based faux leather. It’s a material that manufacturers are continuing to refine in order to make it less harmful to the environment. For example, newer versions of PU use water-based adhesives and vegetable oils, as well as recycled materials.

Ultrasuede®

Ultrasuede is a fairly new, non-woven faux suede that is made with polyester and polyurethane. However, it also contains about 30 percent plantbased materials from sugarcane waste. So, it’s slightly more eco-friendly than traditional PVC and PU faux leathers.

Eco-Friendly Vegan Leathers

The eco-friendly vegan leather industry is nascent. Manufacturers are coming out with a range of new materials that are plantbased, nontoxic, and sustainable. While many are still not widely available, the future looks bright. Here are some examples:

Cork Leather

Harvesting cork bark
Harvesting cork bark in Santa Margarida da Serra, Portugal.

Hardly a new player on the scene, cork leather is gaining in popularity. It can be used in a wide array of products, from shoes to handbags to backpacks and wallets. And it’s environmentally sustainable.

In fact, harvesting cork bark doesn’t harm the tree. Plus, it enables the tree to absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere. Furthermore, cork forests are home to a number of endangered species, including the Iberian lynx. Thus, buying cork products helps to preserve cork forests.

Mirium™

Mirium biodegradable vegan leather
Mirium plantbased, biodegradable vegan leather. Photo: Photo: Mirium.

Mirium is an incredibly promising new vegan leather that is 100 percent natural and biodegradable. It’s made with cork, coconut fibers, and other plant materials. It’s completely plastic-free and it can be recycled.

Tree Bark

In addition to cork bark, product innovators have recently branched out (no pun intended) to using bark from other types of trees, including fig trees. Bartex is one manufacturer that makes bark leather from sustainably-harvested trees. The material doesn’t include any artificial binders, dyes, or adhesives.

Bark leather has another advantage. Its production process is not water-intensive and it has a net zero carbon footprint. (Some of Bartex’s bark leather does incorporate leather from animal skin, so not every line is vegan.)

Leaf Leather

It may not be fair to call leaf leather a new material, as Indigenous Peoples around the world have been using leaves for baskets, dishes, mats, and other items for centuries. However, today’s product designers are expanding on these age-old traditions to make beautiful contemporary wallets and other accessories.

One company is Tree Tribe, which makes eco-friendly wallets and clutches with banana tree leaves.

Pineapple Leather

Vegan Pineapple Leather Backpack by Maravillas Bags
Piñatex backpack by Maravillas Bags. Photo: Maravillas.

Another new sustainable vegan leather is Piñatex®, which is made from pineapple production waste. Already, designers like Hugo Boss are incorporating it into their shoes, backpacks, handbags, and other accessories.

Coconuts

Malai is a new vegan leather that’s made from organic bacterial cellulose that’s sourced from the coconut industry. Based in Southern India, the company works with local coconut farmers by collecting their waste coconut water (which would otherwise be disposed of.) This is then used to feed bacteria, which produces the cellulose. The result is a flexible, water-resistant material that is nontoxic, biodegradable, and 100 percent vegan.

Here’s a video with Malai co-founder Susmtih C S talking about the product:

Apples

Frumat apple leather is made with the pectin from apple skin and core waste. The raw materials are sourced from the Tyrol region of Italy, which is renowned for its apples. The apple industry is known for producing a lot of waste.

Frumat apple leather is durable and flexible. The company also makes a blended material that’s made with 50 percent biomaterial and 50 percent PU. This blended material can be used in shoes, luggage, and furniture upholstery.

Wine Grapes

Another agricultural industry that generates a lot of bio-waste is the wine industry. Of course, this calls for wine leather. Vegea is the solution. The name is derived from the words “vegan” and “gea,” which means Mother Earth.

Vegea vegan wine leather can be used in handbags and other items, including fashion accessories, furniture, automotive upholstery, and packaging.

Coffee Leather

nat-2 coffee leather shoes
Sneakers made with vegan coffee leather and recycled plastic bottles by nat-2.

After all that wine, it makes sense that you would want a cup of coffee and a side of coffee leather. German footwear company nat-2™ has funded this aromatic innovation.

The material is comprised of coffee beans and coffee plant waste. nat-2 has already produced a vegan sneaker from the material, which is made with coffee leather and faux suede made from recycled PET plastic bottles.

Mushrooms

Mylo mushroom leather
Mylo mushroom leather. Photo: Bolt Threads.

Mylo Mushroom Leather

Mycelium is a fungus-like connective tissue that occurs in nature in soil and plants, and can be found in river beds. In a biological process, it breaks down organic matter and provides nutrients to plants and trees. It also makes mushrooms.

Chemists at Bolt Threads discovered a way to harvest this material and create a mushroom-based vegan leather they call Mylo.

Mylo mushroom leather requires significantly less water and land to produce than leather made from cows. In addition, its production emits far fewer greenhouse gases. The material is soft, supple, and environmentally sustainable.

Muskin™

Developed by Life Materials, MuSkin is another 100 percent plantbased vegan leather that’s derived from a mushroom-like fungus.

MuSkin is a soft material that’s similar to suede and can be used in a range of products.

Kombucha

If you’re a kombucha drinker, you’ll appreciate that there’s now a kombucha-based vegan leather. The material is derived from SCOBY, which is an acronym for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.”

The material produces cellulose nanofibrils that are generated by the bacteria and yeast. Over time, the material grows thicker, so it can be harvested for different applications, such as handbags or shoes.

For you DIYers, there are even YouTube tutorials that show you how to make it yourself. Here’s one from The Thought Emporium:

Cactus Leaves

Adrián López Velarde was working in the automotive industry and his friend Marte Cázarez was working in the fashion industry. One of the things the two men had in common was that they were working a lot with leather made from animal skin. And they were both hyper-aware of how polluting the traditional leather industry is.

They knew there had to be a better alternative. So, they started doing research and learned about plantbased leathers. What kind of plantbased leather could be manufactured in Mexico? They realized the answer was right in front of them: cactus, the most abundant plant in Mexico. This is when they came up with the idea of Desserto®, a cactus-based leather alternative.

This video tells the story of Desserto cactus leather:

Desserto now has a couple of lines. One is mixed with wool, so it’s not vegan; but another one is 100 percent plantbased.

Waxed Canvas

While it can be argued whether waxed canvas is a form of vegan leather, I included it in this list because in many ways it’s a great leather alternative because it breaks in and gets a rugged look.

Waxed canvas is made from heavy cotton canvas, which is treated with a wax layer that’s derived from paraffin-based wax (a petroleum product) or beeswax (which is not vegan.) The wax coating strengthens the underlying cotton and makes is water-resistant.

Because the canvas is made from cotton, waxed canvas is not eco-friendly. The reason is that growing cotton requires lot of pesticides and insecticides, as well as water. As I wrote about in my post about cotton vs. non-organic cotton, it takes more than 5,300 gallons of water to produce enough cotton for one t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Plus, cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the world when it comes to insecticides and other pesticides. Not to mention, most cotton is grown with genetically modified seeds, which are harmful to insects and birds.

The good news about cotton is that it’s biodegradable, and you can find organic cotton.

That leaves the wax coating. Technically, if you found an organic cotton waxed canvas jacket that was coated with beeswax, you would find a biodegradable jacket. However, the beeswax is not vegan.

A paraffin wax-coated jacket would be vegan, but covered with a non-biodegradable material. All in all, waxed canvas is better than traditional leather, but it’s not as eco-friendly as, say, items made with cactus, cork, or mushrooms.

Paper Leather

A leather alternative made with heavy duty paper is not a new innovation. German manufacturers developed a paper leather called Presstoff in the 19th century. The material was made with layered paper pulp that was treated with a laminate coating. Presstoff shoes, bags, and other products became popular in WWII when traditional leather was rationed.

Today, manufacturers are continuing to innovate with heave duty Kraft paper. The material is also known as washable paper, and Kraft-tex® is a commonly-known brand.

Paper leather is a great material for wallets, brief cases, and bags. And depending on what it’s coasted with, it can be totally biodegradable. The more eco-friendly paper leather brands use paper that’s sourced from recycled materials or FSC certified wood as well as biodegradable coating.

Tire Leather

Shoes soles made with recycled tires
Sole of Gumbies flip flops made with recycled tires.

Tires themselves are not an eco-friendly product by any stretch of the imagination. They can take over 80 years to decompose and when they do, they leave toxic chemicals in the environment. And even more chemicals are emitted if they’re burned. The good news is, used tires can be recycled to make products like flooring and playgrounds.

They can also be upcycled to make products like wallets, backpacks, messenger bags, and even dog collars. Tire inner tubes are usually used for these types of products. However, actual tires can be used for soles of sandals and shoes.

The key benefits of recycling and upcycling tires is that you keep them out of the landfill. They also make incredibly durable, water-resistant products.

With all of these vegan leather alternatives, it’s easy to see a future where animals are not exploited for the skin, and workers are exposed to much fewer chemicals. For people who still want to wear animal-based leather products, buying vintage and pre-owned items is a great option. I look forward to seeing the biodegradable plantbased leathers expand their market share!

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Hello. My name is Kristen and I'm the founder of UniGuide. You can read more about my background here.

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