The Ultimate Guide to Vegan Leather

Vegan leathers offer us a serious alternative to real leather.  

There are many different types of vegan leather that look amazingly like animal leather- but are better for both our animals and our environment. 

Let’s delve deeper into what vegan leather is made from and what it looks like. We will also learn how to take care of our vegan leather products to increase their lifecycle.

Animal leather is old news!

What is vegan leather?

Whispers of the term vegan leather have been passed around as the trendy, upcoming material that’s set to put traditional leather out of style. Vegan friendly leather is a type of leather that is made using synthetic materials. Whereas real leather is made from animal rawhide and skins- something that is a huge problem for those who follow a vegan lifestyle.

Vegan leather is effectively the same as synthetic leather.

It refers to any faux or fake leather product that is not made from animal products. With veganism becoming a widely popular topic, the term has been mainly used to re-brand the outdated “faux leather” craze that is now becoming popular again.

However, those that lead a passionate vegan lifestyle have set out to bring new meaning to the term leather. Most vegans would argue vegan leather can’t be generalized as just any fake leather product because there are environmental and public welfare connotations too. 

With this in mind, a range of materials can now be used to make vegan leather including natural materials like cork, cactus and even pineapple.

Types of vegan leather

1) Plastic Leather

pu leather plastic leather fabric swatches in neutral colours

Although not the most preferred material, vegan leather can be made of synthetic plastics. The most common plastic materials used include polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU).

Synthetic leathers are produced using different chemicals and a completely different industrial process than real leather. Plastic leather is predominantly made by bonding together a plastic coating to a fabric backing. Depending on which plastic coating is used defines whether faux leather can be deemed eco-friendly.

Modern and less damaging plastic is known as polyurethane (PU). PVC was more common in the past, but in recent years has been referred to as ‘the poison plastic.’ Both produce hazardous toxins during manufacturing and the oil-based polymers PU is made with fossil fuels that widely impact climate change.

It is for these reasons that the vegan community prefers not to use plastic leather products. Not only does plastic leather production harm the environment, but it also harms our health. With that in mind, we should all steer away from purchasing plastic leather and look at alternative materials that can replace animal leather instead.

2) Cork Leather

model wearing a cork vegan leather jacket in brown

Cork leather is made from the bark of the Cork Oak. Cork bark is a fully renewable, biodegradable, and recyclable material that keeps Cork Oak trees happy and healthy.

Cork Oak grows exclusively in the Mediterranean where the cork bark layer is harvested from the tree by local, skilled professionals. Stripping the bark starts a “regeneration” process where the tree begins to take in more carbon dioxide and produce more oxygen than before its harvest. Cork harvesting is one of the world’s most sustainable forestry practices, and cork forests in Portugal, Spain, and Italy are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Cork leather is a simple process to make. First, the raw cork is boiled in water. It is then pressed and rolled into sheets, and thinly sliced to create layers of cork material. It is then colored with natural, plant-based dyes for the full, finished effect.

Once processed the material is incredibly similar to animal leather in both texture and quality. Quality cork leather is an incredibly durable material and needs to be “broken in” just like real leather. It develops character over time, becoming more flexible with age while still retaining its shape.

Cork leather can last for 10-20 years, if not longer if it is properly taken care of. By comparison, a synthetic leather bag usually starts to fall apart within one year of use!

3) Pineapple Leather

Piñatex is an entirely natural material weaved from the fibers found in pineapple leaves. It is a by-product of existing pineapple harvests, so the material requires no additional environmental resources to be crafted.

Pineapple leather is most affluent in southeast Asia. After their pineapple harvest, the suitable plant leaves which are left behind are collected in bundles. The fibres are then extracted using semi-automatic machines. After that, they dry naturally in the sun, or by drying ovens during Asia’s rainy season.

The dry fibres are purified to remove any impurities which produce a fluff-like material. This fluff-like pineapple leaf fibre (PALF) gets mixed with a corn-based polylactic acid (PLA) and undergoes a mechanical process to create Piñafelt- a non-woven mesh which forms the base of Piñatex vegan leathers.

Piñafelt was first colored using GOTS-certified pigments.  Depending on the product, Piñatex is often coated in either a resin, foil, or PU coating.

Piñatex is a rising trend, being used more regularly by designers for a range of fashion accessories, upholstery, and footwear. Pinatex has been used by over 1000 brands worldwide including Hugo Boss and H&M.

4) Cactus Leather

Desserto-vegan cactus leather

Cactus leather is similar to pineapple leather. It is made by trimming the leaves of the cactus plant.

 Abundant in Mexico, the cactus leaves are cut, cleaned, mashed and dried, they are mixed with non-toxic chemicals to produce a flexible and breathable leather that doesn’t stain. The cutting process doesn’t harm the cactus plant. In fact, it can be referred to as more like “getting a haircut” after which, the leaves will grow back within a matter of months.  Making it a far more sustainable resource than animal leather.

Desserto is a brand that pioneered cactus leather in the fashion world. With the purpose of creating an alternative to animal leather, founders Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez developed a leather made purely from cactus. They make premium sustainable products ranging from handbags to interiors with aspirations to make leather for the automotive industry too.

What does vegan leather look like?

Vegan leather comes in several different forms and qualities, so some resemble animal leather better than others. However, if vegan leather is manufactured to high quality, it can be hard to distinguish between the two. The only real difference in the appearance of vegan leather comes down to its personality as a material.  Real leather forms a patina while aging and is breathable thanks to the pores you find on its surface. Vegan leather is synthetic and so won’t retain most of these qualities. Although plastic leather is known to imitate real leather exactly in appearance.

Cork leather has a unique look due to the natural patterns found in cork material. It can be deemed as a positive trait, resembling unique characteristics like that of animal leather. Each cork product is one of a kind.

Pinatex pineapple leather has a very distressed look featuring fine wrinkles in its natural form. Many Pinatex products are coated giving them a smoothed-out appearance and a finished look. 

Is vegan leather high quality?

Like real leather, Vegan leather can be made with different levels of quality. The higher the quality, the longer it will last. There are many more vegan leathers on the market that are a lot cheaper and lower quality than real leather. Even so, that does not mean that top-end vegan leathers are not made to an extremely high standard.  One thing we have to bear in mind is that since an animal leather product is made of skin, it is going to last a lifetime.

Vegan leather is made from mostly plant resources and so is less durable and tends to be thinner when compared to animal leather. As a result, it’s not uncommon for some vegan leathers to tear or scuff badly over time.  However, vegan leathers are ever developing to be manufactured at the best possible quality. Often, a resin top coating is applied to give additional strength, durability, and water resistance.

How to maintain vegan leather?

Like all leather fabrics, vegan leather needs to be taken care of. Some vegan leather is made with a plastic coating, so is already waterproof. Coatings also make vegan leather easy to clean using a mild detergent or by wiping it with a damp cloth.

Conditioning products that stop leather cracking won’t penetrate vegan leathers that have topcoat treatments. Some vegan leathers will dry out and crack with prolonged sun exposure or if it’s particularly poor quality material. Make sure to look into the suppliers and care instructions to make your vegan leather last longer.

What does vegan leather smell like?

Vegan leather that is made with PVC or PU often has a chemical scent due to heavy processing. It’s often described as a ‘fishy’ smell and can often be very hard to get rid of, especially while trying not to ruin the material.

Other vegan leathers that are made from natural materials have a neutral scent, typically due to the drying process which they endure.

Vegan Leather VS Real Leather

Quality and durability are the key things to consider when comparing vegan and real leather.

Due to the wide range of vegan leathers available, each different leather can replicate a characteristic of animal leather perfectly including durability, texture, shape, and style.

Vegan leather is often a lot thinner than real leather, more lightweight, and cheaper since it does not require specific craftsmanship and processing. It is a versatile fabric that can produce a wide range of products. 

The only downside is that vegan leathers are more likely to wear out unattractively whereas real leather ages over time and forms a patina, which adds character and uniqueness. However, most vegan leathers now have protective coatings that help protect them. With proper care, they are bound to last longer.

It all comes down to what matters most to you

Besides replicability, price, and style, another concern for most people when deciding between vegan and real leather is the impact it has on animals and the environment. Vegan leather is overall deemed less damaging to the environment than animal leather. Most practices make use of natural harvests and demand can be met with supply easier and more ethically than within the animal leather industry.

People are becoming more aware and concerned about the ethics behind their purchases and natural vegan leathers pose a solution to the harmful industry. For this reason, vegan leathers are becoming widely popular and can be used in everything that traditional leather can. You can find vegan leather shoes, handbags, furniture, car seat covers, and more. Tesla recently became one of the first automakers to offer vegan leather seats, along with BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Ferrari.

Conclusion

The takeaway here is that vegan leathers offer a solution to an industry that is irrefutably toxic. Not just to animals, but to our environment also. With all the options available to replace animal leather, we should definitely be wearing natural resources more often. 

Do you think you can picture yourself wearing a leather handbag made purely from cactus or pineapple?! (We think it would be super cool if you did).

At MiiRO we’re interested in all things vegan and plant-based which includes learning more about the vegan fashion industry and keeping on top of some of the latest vegan trends. 

To keep in the loop, be sure to check out our other blog articles, and follow our socials to join the discussion!

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