What is vegan leather?

British Vogue’s affair with vegan fashion has been ongoing for a while. Last November, they showcased a list of vegan bags “that look as good as the real thing”. The article says that according to a survey by the Vegan Society, the number of vegans in Britain has risen by 350 percent and with over 500,000 people in the UK now identifying as vegan. Numbers of vegetarian and fast fashion conscious population is on the rise too. 

Why use vegan leather?

It is not only ethical reasons but also environmental benefits that encourage vegan lifestyle. The livestock required to produce meat, dairy—and leather—takes up the majority of the world’s farmland, it is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all the world’s transportation systems combined, and ultimately contributing to climate change. It also takes an enormous amount of water to grow crops for animals to eat, clean factory farms, and give animals water to drink. 

The list of cons of animal agriculture is long and I will not go into it in more detail than the aforementioned as I think it is enough of valuable reasons to at least consider vegan leather as an alternative for the animal-sourced material. 

But is vegan leather really that sustainable? What exactly is vegan leather? What is it made from? And will it last as long as animal leather? This article is a short briefing that unravels the pros and cons of vegan leather and can be used as a starting point for further research about the material. 

What is vegan leather?

Vegan leather is an ethical, sustainable, and cruelty-free fabric that resembles the look and feel of traditional leather. It does not use animal skin or animal-derived ingredients, i.e. stitching, hardware, glue.  Vegan leather has a couple of different names, including "faux leather", "vegan leather", "PU leather" and "pleather”.

What is vegan leather made of?

Most vegan leather is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU), which are plastic-based materials. It can also be made from innovative and sustainable materials such as pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, other fruit waste, and recycled plastic and used to create products that put animal skins to shame. 

Vegan leather comes in several different forms and qualities, so some are more 'leather-like' than others. Generally speaking, and focusing on good quality vegan leather, there isn’t that much difference to real leather. Faux leather, however, is typically a lot cheaper than real leather products. This is because it’s cheaper to produce pleather than it is to produce real leather.

Is vegan leather durable?

The natural leather, i.e. apple leather is yet to be tested for their durability, it is not widely produced and cannot be produced with a smooth texture finish. Pineapple leather, Piñatex, currently requires a polyurethane coating during production and just like an apple leather, there are limitations to its production and durability assurance. 

Quality and durability are important factors that the customer takes into consideration when purchasing a handbag, or any other fashion items. They often compare vegan to real leather. Vegan leather is often a lot thinner than real leather and much more lightweight which is great for fashion as it makes it potentially easier to work with. Vegan leather can come in different standards of quality and as with real leather, the higher the quality, the longer it will last. Faux leather, when cared for properly, is very durable. 

Is vegan weather waterproof?

Most of vegan leathers are waterproof and do not require the application of waterproofing sprays. Faux leather made from Polyurethane (PU) has similar properties like that of plastic and it does not absorb water.

However, some kinds of faux leather goods are processed by mixing PU with natural fibers such as cotton or wool. Its is advised to check the brand’s website, the item’s label or contact the company for further advice on how to apply waterproofing sprays for protection against moisture. 

How to clean faux leather?

Vegan leather materials are one of the easiest ones to maintain and taking care and cleaning faux leather is much more simple than taking care of a leather counterpart. All it is needed for it is a bit of mild soap or detergent with warm water and a couple of clean cloths. First step is to wipe down the dirt with a clean, soft cloth dipped in the solution. After spot cleaning is finished, use a clean, damp cloth to remove any soapy residue that might be lingering on the bag. Soap left behind on the bag can dry out the vegan leather and cause it to crack, so you want to make sure you get it all off before you let the bag dry. 

Finally, use a clean, dry cloth to remove any excess water from the bag and let it air dry. 

There are also a number of products that will cover the surface of the faux leather to prevent high temperatures and sun rays from drying up and cracking the surface. Such products can also help to soften the material. 

Faux leather fabric must not be treated with an alcoholic beverage whenever it has a stain! Alcohol can deteriorate the material and make it extremely weak and damaged.

Does faux leather stretch?

Faux leather does stretch, perhaps not as much as real leather. Vegan shoes, for instance, will soften with wear. And just like with a real leather product, a little more room could be achieved by applying pressure on the material over a period of a few days. During this period it is recommend packing the shoes with newspaper or wearing thick socks and wear the shoes.

The process of stretching fake leather needs to be imperceptible and gradual to minimise the risk of it cracking hence taking a vegan leather item to a cobbler is not recommended. It is best to avoid it altogether. 

Is vegan leather sustainable?

In an interview with Vogue, Stella McCartney explained that vegan leather should be seen as more than just an “alternative” — it should be embraced for the high-quality product it can create. She said, “I think one of the biggest compliments I can receive is when I know people go in and buy a Falabella bag [name of the bag offered in Stella’s line] or a pair of shoes, or a faux-leather skirt, and they have no idea they’re not real leather. I think that’s really where it becomes sexy — where you’re not just providing an alternative for someone who is vegan. You’re creating a great product.”

McCartney also counters the common argument that leather is better than its faux counterparts because is a natural material, hence it is biodegradable.  

“An animal decomposes when it’s natural, but after all the chemical treatments [applied] to a leather handbag, it isn’t going to decompose in your wardrobe. That product is staying alive because of the chemicals that have been put on it — because if you just had a dead animal in your closet, it would be a very different situation.”

The sustainability factor of vegan leather is a hot topic and the definite answer to this question remains wide open. The goal for plant-based technological advancements and innovations is to make 100% natural faux leathers completely accessible and on a mass scale. When and if this will happen, only time will tell. 

Until then, what we know about vegan leathers is that they offer a cruelty-free alternative to animal leather, which is the most important factor to most vegans and vegetarians, including myself. And we will certainly be seeing more vegan leather products in the near future, as more and more well established fashion brands pledge to eliminate fur and animal skins used on their runways, i.e. Prada goes fur- free, Chanel is offering a gold boater hat made from Piñatex. The future of luxury is not animal leather. 

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