In my last blog post, Sustainability: Why Strévé Uses Real Leather, I explained the considerations you need to make when making or buying leather products. But this would not be a proper discussion about leather if I didn’t mention its popular alternative – vegan leather!
Vegan leather – or fake leather – has been around for decades. But while it has recently reached new levels of popularity, it is not necessarily a sustainable replacement for the real thing. Vegan leather has become a catch-all phrase for any leather alternative that does not use animal products. Unfortunately, some brands use the term to appear more eco-friendly than they are. The truth is that there are many leather alternatives that are very damaging, both to us and the planet.
Without a solid understanding of what real and fake leathers really are, it is almost impossible to make an educated decision about your purchase habits. If you’re thinking of buying a leather or vegan leather product, it’s important to be informed.
What is fake leather?
Alternatives to animal leather have existed since the early 1900s and gained more widespread popularity in the 60s and 70s. While many of these alternatives were initially developed to provide a cheaper alternative to real leather, new consumer trends have accelerated the rise in popularity of ‘vegan’ leather. Vegan leather is, essentially, no different from its fake leather predecessors. The new term was created to help brand fake leather as a more environmentally friendly alternative to animal-made materials. But it’s important to understand that this isn’t always the case.
Vegan leather, also known as artificial leather or fake leather, is a material used to substitute real leather in consumer goods. Most synthetic leathers are made by coating a fabric base with a layer of plastic. The most common plastic coatings are polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PU leather is softer and more flexible, so is used for clothing more often than PVC leather.
Fake leather earned the new moniker “vegan leather” thanks to the fact that the material is free of animal products. However, the name does not mean that fake leather is environmentally friendly, as is frequently assumed. Like most textiles, the manufacturing process for vegan leather requires several chemicals. The environmental impact of toxins found in the production process of vegan leathers is comparable to animal leather production. Furthermore, the product lifespan is usually shorter for vegan leather, and fake leather products are thrown out more frequently. Not only does this lead to more waste, but fake leather can take decades to biodegrade. Like other plastics, the PU and PVC coatings on fake leather products do not biodegrade quickly. Instead, they will simply break into smaller and smaller pieces until they become microplastics. These tiny pieces of plastic will then find there way into the ground and nearby waterways. Compared to animal leather, fake leathers can spend over twice as long breaking-down in landfills, leaching harmful chemicals and micro-plastics into the environment.
In recent years, natural alternatives to plastic-based fake leathers have been developed. These new leather alternatives include materials made from cork, glazed cotton, and even kelp. However, these new vegan leathers have not yet made a significant entry into the textile market due to high production costs.
Which is better: Fake or real leather?
So how do fake and real leathers stack up?
Durability: Overall, real leather is more durable and wears better than fake leather. A real leather coat can look good for years with proper care. Fake leather will usually tear or break apart after a few years, especially if exposed to excessive heat or cold. Animal leathers can also endure being stretched and bent more effectively than fake leather.
Price: One of fake leather’s biggest selling points is that it is considerably cheaper than real leather. However, you still get what you pay for. If you want a fake leather that feels and looks somewhat like real leather, you will need to pay more. Cheap fake leathers are made with cheaper materials. They tend to be stiff and less breathable and can have a strong smell from the chemicals they’re made from.
Look and Feel: Remember – real leather is the standard to which all fake leathers aspire. Real leather is soft, flexible, and will stretch and bend to fit the wearer. Real leather also looks better for longer, even after years of wear and tear. A well-worn real leather piece will have variations and markings that many people find appealing. In comparison, fake leathers tend to have a stiff texture (unless you pay for very high-quality fake material) and when worn for long periods of time, the plastic layers will tend to crack and flake off.
Environmental Impact: Both real and fake leather, as well as every item of clothing you choose to wear, has an impact on the environment. Both use chemicals in their production and can leach chemicals once they end up in landfills. However, the expected lifespan of each type of leather significantly affects their expected environmental impact.
Your clothing, your decision
You may choose to never wear clothing or accessories made from animal leather but choosing an alternative can be a very complex issue. Each material has a different impact on the planet and there is no perfect solution (yet!). Instead, try focusing on balancing cost, quality, and manufacturing practices. A jacket that lasts you 10 to 20 years (or more!) is always better than one you throw out after two or three seasons. The longevity of clothing – in other words, how long you wear each item – is the true measure of sustainability.
Interested in learning more? Read the first article in this series, Sustainability: Why Strévé Only Uses Real Leather.