What Is Vegan Leather?

This broad term is defined mainly by what it does not contain.

woman wears a black vegan leather dress
Denise Buschkühle wears a black vegan leather dress in Paris, February 2020.

Christian Vierig / Getty Images

Vegan leather is defined mainly by what it does not contain – animal skin and other byproducts. It can be made from either plastics or plant matter. There is growing concern about the environmental impact of plastic-based vegan leather and its inability to biodegrade at the end of its life cycle, so the trend towards plant-based vegan leather is growing.

Vegan Leather vs. Real Leather

Vegan leather is one of the fastest-growing segments of the fashion industry, thanks to shoppers who strive to eliminate animal products from the items they buy. These shoppers are motivated by concerns over animal welfare or the hazardous environmental conditions in which leather hides are typically tanned and stitched into consumer products.

Vegan leather is designed to imitate real leather and is made from different kinds of plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane. However, as shoppers have learned about the environmental impact of these petroleum-based plastics, demand for plant-based alternatives has increased. Recent innovations include vegan leathers made from pineapple leaves, cork, kelp, agave, apple skins, wine-making remnants, kombucha, and more.

A tough, hardy material, vegan leather is suitable for footwear, bags, jackets, upholstery, and more. It's durable and long-lasting, but it does not age as gracefully as real leather, nor does it acquire the soft patina that makes real leather so attractive to many consumers. Plastic-based vegan leather does not have the breathability that real leather does, meaning that car upholstery made from it (also known as leatherette) will get wet and sweaty much faster. On the other hand, vegan leather maintains its appearance well over time, can be easily cleaned, and requires less overall maintenance.

Plastic-Based Materials

Many vegan leathers are made from petroleum-based plastics: either polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU). 

Polyurethane (PU)

Polyurethane leather is made by coating a piece of cotton, nylon, or polyester with a layer of polyurethane, made from a mixture of plastic chemicals and petroleum compounds. A roller adds a grainy texture to the surface to make it look more like real leather. Because PU has fewer layers applied to the fabric than PVC, it tends to be softer and more flexible, making it suitable for nicer vegan leather products.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

PVC is the cheapest form of vegan leather and is used for the lowest-cost goods. It is made in the same way as PU, being applied or laminated to a piece of fabric, but it uses a plasticizing agent called a "phthalate" to add softness and flexibility to the material. Phthalates, however, are linked to impaired fertility and reproductive development, so they're best avoided. PVC is considered the most damaging plastic from an environmental perspective, but it's attractive to manufacturers because it's generally cheaper than PU.

Plastics and Their Impact on the Environment

Neither PVC nor PU breaks down naturally in landfills when discarded, and both risk leaching chemicals into the natural environment. As it disintegrates over time (after 500 years or so), plastic leather will likely contaminate its surroundings with microplastics, which are a hazard to wildlife and marine life; ironically, this causes harm to animals that a shopper may have wished to protect by choosing not to buy real leather in the first place.

Natural Materials

The world of plant-based vegan leathers is expanding rapidly as companies experiment and innovate with new ingredients, driven by consumer demand. These are some of the most common natural options.

Pineapple

One of the biggest names in the plant-based leather world these days is Piñatex, made from pineapple leaf fibers that are a byproduct of the fruit industry. This isn't a new concept; pineapple leaves have been used for centuries to make traditional clothing in the Philippines, which is what creator Dr. Carmen Hijosa used as the basis for her invention.

The beauty of Piñatex is that it transforms a waste product into something useful, without requiring any additional land, water, pesticides, or fertilizers. Making it is a more eco-friendly production process than leather, which is notoriously toxic and relies on heavy metals to treat animal hides, nor is there the excessive waste that comes from the irregular shape of the animal's skin. Piñatex has been embraced by several shoemakers, including Puma, Camper, and Bourgeois Bohème.

Apple Skin

Denmark-based company The Apple Girl transforms apple skins left over from juicing and cider-making into a plant-based leather. "It’s sustainable, biodegradable and of course vegan," the website reads, although some designers, such as SAMARA, do add a thin layer of polyurethane to act as a binding agent.

Cork

Cork is quite possibly the most amazing, versatile, and eco-friendly material out there. It comes from trees grown throughout the Mediterranean region, and the leather is made by chipping off bark, boiling and shaving it into thin tissue paper-like sheets, and then laminating it into usable pieces of material. 

The Minimalist Vegan writes, "The fabric is incredibly durable, elastic and lightweight. Cork leather is also hypoallergenic, anti-fungal and waterproof." And it's even good for the trees to have their bark removed periodically. Check out Bobobark for an example of high-end bags made from cork leather.

Mushrooms

A few companies have been experimenting with growing a leather-like material from mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus that consists of long, white filaments. MycoWorks, Bolt Threads, and Muskin are all using mycelium to make an alternative leather. Bolt Threads founder Dan Widmaier told Fast Company that the mycelium cells can grow into a very dense fabric that gets "cut it into slices, and it goes through a process not dissimilar to how animal hides are tanned to become leather, except it’s more environmentally friendly."

Maintenance and Care

The good thing about vegan leather is that its surface is not porous, so stains remain on the top and can be cleaned easily. Use a mild detergent and soft cloth to wipe as needed; you may wish to apply a conditioner afterward, as it is more prone to drying out and cracking than real leather. Avoid storing in direct sunlight, as this can make cracking worse.

Vegan leather does not last as long as real leather; it has only one-third of the life expectancy, so keep that in mind when choosing a product to buy.