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Faux Leather – Sustainable Materials With Great Style

When prototyping new projects, I often use alternative materials to reduce costs, and faux leather has become my go-to. It provides a similar feel and workflow to real animal leather, allowing me to fully understand the final product. If all goes well, using faux leather leaves me with a fully functional item. 

Faux leather is a leather alternative made from artificial materials. Faux leather aims to emulate real animal hides at a lower cost but heavily relies on plastics and is not environmentally conscious. Faux leather costs $1 per square foot, a fraction of animal leather prices.

Let’s look closer at the history of faux leather and how it has become one of the most used materials in mass-produced goods.

What Is Faux Leather?

Faux leather is a low-cost leather that brings the look and feel of leather to a broader audience. Faux leather uses artificial materials and plastics to achieve this. The pattern and smell of faux leather are also added during production to simulate real animal hides. 

Since the material aims to produce a leather alternative at a low cost, there is less concern for the environmental impact. Faux leather is not biodegradable or a sustainable material. 

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • History of Faux Leather
  • Faux Leather Overview Table
  • Other Names for Faux Leather
  • Types of Faux Leather
  • Is Faux Leather Better Than Real Leather?
  • How Is Faux Leather Made?
  • Is Faux Leather Bad for The Environment?
  • Pros of Faux Leather
  • Cons of Faux Leather
  • Cost of Faux Leather
  • Best Uses for Faux Leather
  • When Should Faux Leather Be Avoided?
  • How To Clean and Maintain Faux Leather
  • How To Repair Faux Leather
  • My Personal Research Into Faux Leather
  • Helpful Faux Leather Insights
  • Key Takeaways
Faux Leather Handbag - Faux Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Faux Leather Handbag

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

Faux leather is often thought to be a more environmentally friendly alternative to real animal hides. Unfortunately, faux is not the same as vegan leather, a leather alternative that focuses on a more sustainable good. Instead, faux leather aims to produce the largest amount of artificial leather at the lowest possible cost. 

This leads to the material relying heavily on petroleum-based products, unlike vegan leather, which attempts to recycle waste or find a sustainable source. Faux leather heavily relies on plastic and is, therefore, also not biodegradable. 

When this product fails and is discarded, the remnants of the faux leather may sit in landfills for up to 1000 years before decomposing. Animal leather, on the other hand, may only take 50 years. With faux leather being less durable and slower to decompose, it can easily lead to unnecessary waste piling up in a landfill. 

History of Faux Leather

Faux leather was invented in the 1920s in a rubber plant in Naugatuck, Connecticut. This company was the first to coat durable fabric in vinyl before adding texture to simulate real leather. The product, later known as “Naugahyde,” kicked off the search for leather alternatives as it could cut costs by half. 

Today, Naugahyde is still made and has inspired other companies to produce their other faux leather with similar artificial materials. Many of which involve coating artificial fabrics in various plastics. Other companies that produce vegan leather have taken leather alternatives another way, prioritizing sustainability. While vegan leather is the industry’s future, it stems from the Naugahyde created before it.

Faux Leather Overview Table

CharacteristicDetails
DurabilityAlthough faux leather is not as durable as animal hides, it is still strong. The plastic used helps resist scratches and prevent tearing.
SustainabilityFaux leather is not sustainable at all. The material is made using petroleum-based products and is non-biodegradable. 
RepairabilityWhile repairing faux leather is possible, it may not last long. Wear quickly spreads as faux leather breaks down, and repairs only coat the troubled area. 
LongevityFaux leather often lasts around five years. By then, sunlight and other wear will begin degrading the plastic, causing the leather to fall apart.
Water ResistanceWater resistance is one of the most significant benefits of using a plastic coating with faux leather. While not completely waterproof, faux leather can easily repel liquid without leaving any stains.
Faux Leather Characteristics

Other Names for Faux Leather

Many names are used for leather alternatives, but not all are the same as faux leather. Terms will be used interchangeably and may cause confusion or misrepresentation of a product. Faux leather specifically refers to material that is made predominantly of plastics. Other names for faux leather include leatherette, PU leather, and PVC leather. 

Types of Faux Leather 

PU

PU leather is fabric coated in polyurethane to protect the structure underneath. This method of producing faux leather is slightly less durable but produces a much more flexible material. This makes PU leather an excellent choice for fashion goods and other light-wearing products. 

PVC

While PVC leather is extremely similar to PU leather, it has an additional layer of material made from foam or other products that help increase the overall durability. PVC leather is considered a tougher, more durable PU leather that trades flexibility and breathability for a stronger final product. PVC leather is a great option for hard-wearing goods that may require less flexibility.

Leatherette

Leatherette is a term used in the automotive industry to describe faux leather upholstery. It uses the same production methods as other faux leathers but primarily uses fabrics as the base. The material can stay lighter, more flexible, and slightly more breathable by using fabric. A polyurethane coating adds protection, making this a longer-lasting material. 

Is Faux Leather Better Than Real Leather?

Faux leather has some benefits over real animal leather, but it falls short in comparison. The benefits of faux leather is a more cost-effective material that can be purchased in a much larger size and is more water resistant. The tradeoff to achieve this is a less durable, less sustainable material that does not last as long as real animal leather. Faux leather is an imitation material that does not compare favorably to the material it is trying to copy. 

How Is Faux Leather Made?

Faux leather is made from various materials to mimic the look and feel of genuine leather. Different methods are used in the production of faux leather, but here is a basic overview of the typical process:

  1. Making faux leather starts by mixing a stabilizing chemical with polyvinyl chloride. This mixture creates better bonding strength when applied to the backing material. 
  2. Then, key ingredients, including fragrance, flame retardant, and ultraviolet protection, are added. (Both heat and the sun can easily cause damage to faux leather. These additives help protect the material and improve its longevity).
  3. Next, dye is added to achieve the color necessary for the product, mixing everything into a thick-colored liquid.
  4. The mixture is then poured onto various backing materials, including fabrics, foams, or paper, also providing the final product with varying strengths. 
  5. While the material is freshly coated, it passes through an embossing machine, heat stamping the mixture with a texture while encouraging it to adhere to the backing material. 

Is Faux Leather Bad for The Environment?

Yes, although leather alternatives are often seen as more environmentally friendly, faux leather makes little to no effort to do so. The materials used during the manufacturing process are all petroleum-based, and there is a heavy reliance on plastic. Therefore, when a faux leather item is discarded, it is not biodegradable — potentially sitting in landfills for up to 1000 years. Faux leather prioritizes a low-cost product at the expense of the environment. 

HaeJung Kim, JiYoung Kim, Kyung Wha Oh, and Hye Jung Jung from Clothing & Textiles Research Journal, a peer-reviewed journal published by Sage, discussed the adoption of more environmentally friendly faux leather, recording the limited knowledge of the material by the general public, but also the slow adoption by manufacturers. Despite concerns by some, they found less than half of the recorded people recognized the importance of more environmentally friendly faux leather.

Pros of Faux Leather

Faux is important in the leather industry, allowing many to enjoy leather-like goods without the high cost. For crafters, faux leather may also act as a great practice tool. Faux leather may not be ideal for flagship products, but it comfortably supplies the lower-end market. The benefits of faux leather include:

  1. Extremely low cost, at a fraction of real leather
  2. Can be purchased in large uniformed rolls
  3. Provides a great practice surface when testing techniques or patterns
  4. Offers the look of leather to a wider audience
  5. Less-maintenance
  6. Consistency in quality
Faux Leather Material - Faux Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Faux Leather Material

Cons of Faux Leather

With faux leather manufacturers attempting to make the lowest-cost material, their product often suffers. Comparisons fall short of real animal leather, and environmental concerns are often raised, leading to an underwhelming material with a much shorter lifespan than what it is trying to emulate. Some of the downsides of faux leather may include:

  1. Not environmentally friendly or biodegradable
  2. Short expected lifespan of only around five years
  3. Limited ability to repair, and often cheaper to replace
  4. The surface may peel and disintegrate over time 

With faux leather being less durable and slower to decompose, it can easily lead to unnecessary waste piling up in a landfill.

Cost of Faux Leather

Faux leather is often sold in panels or by the yard. A panel is the most expensive way to purchase the material at around $5 per piece, averaging around 2 square feet. 

The cost of faux leather drastically reduces when buying it by the yard, with the upfront price close to $20 per yard, just over $1 per square foot. In addition, some retailers offer discounts when placing a large order, potentially further dropping the faux leather cost. 

Best Uses for Faux Leather

Faux leather has many uses as a product, practice, and substitute material. It can be used for most of the same projects as real animal leather and is a great template tool for crafters looking to save money. While faux leather does not offer the same performance as real leather, its low cost makes it versatile. 

  1. Low-cost, leather-like goods
  2. Prototyping and practicing before using real leather
  3. Low-maintenance goods or in an upholstery setting 

When Should Faux Leather Be Avoided

Although faux leather is intended to be a leather substitute, it is important to be aware of its shortcomings when considering the material for various projects. Faux leather has a notoriously shorter lifespan and may not be rugged enough for harsh environments. Faux leather works best when playing to its strengths rather than considering it universal.

  1. In high-stress or wear areas
  2. Thick, long-lasting projects, such as knife sheaths or saddles
  3. When considered for items that require good breathability

How To Clean and Maintain Faux Leather

A benefit of choosing faux leather is the ease of cleaning and maintaining the material. Unlike real animal leather, faux leather can be cleaned using a dampened cloth. The plastic coating found on faux leather prevents water from seeping in. 

When dealing with tougher stains, faux leather cleaners or a light soap can be used. Testing the supplies first with any product will help avoid unforeseen side effects. 

When maintaining faux leather goods, a specialty conditioner should be purchased. These products help restore the color and luster of faux leather items. Follow product instructions and should use it after cleaning the item. 

Typically, a soft cloth will gently be used to apply the product. If a faux leather item encounters plenty of sunlight, it may be wise to search for a conditioner with UV protection, helping to prolong the life of the faux leather.

How To Repair Faux Leather

Repairing faux leather depends on the damage. Small scratches may often be buffed out using a faux leather conditioner and a soft cloth. On the other hand, more significant damage, such as tears or peels, requires much more work. Once faux leather begins to peel, the area that has experienced damage must be patched to prevent further harm. 

The area surrounding the peeling faux leather is trimmed, and a small backing fabric is placed inside the hole. A faux leather feeler can then be applied onto the surface to cover the damage, where it can then be sanded and colored to hide the repairs. As wear becomes larger on faux leather items, the ability to repair them decreases. Items with multiple peeled areas or big holes may often need to be replaced. 

This helpful video by Rub ‘n Restore Inc. provides an in-depth tutorial on how to repair faux leather, showcasing how well faux leather repairs age.

My Personal Research Into Faux Leather

Faux leather has a short lifespan of around five years. Some common reasons for failure include cracking, peeling, and ultraviolet damage from the sun, causing the material to disintegrate. For my research, I decided to look at these common fail points for the material and how to best avoid them from occurring.

Cracking

Faux leather is said to begin cracking from extreme temperatures or prolonged exposure to the sun. To test this, I took two pieces of the same faux leather, leaving one outside and one stored inside. After leaving the pieces overnight, I compared the two. 

While it had only been left outside for a single day, the faux leather showed signs of stiffness. Bending the material did not cause it to crack, but I could tell the exposure to various elements would eventually cause it to fail. When compared to the stored piece, the one left outside was slightly duller in color. 

I applied a leather conditioner to the piece left outside, which helped restore the material’s color and flexibility. The two takeaways from this test were to avoid leaving faux leather in sunlight and apply conditioner to the material periodically or when removing it from storage.

Peeling

Over time, faux leather’s layers begin to separate. This is typically caused by sunlight but could also result from aggressive cleaning products or heat. To test these, I used a heat gun on the lowest setting to simulate prolonged exposure. In addition, I cleaned another piece of faux leather using household supplies to see if there were any adverse effects. 

Unfortunately, I could not get the faux leather to peel using a heat gun on low settings. While the faux leather began to curl around the edges, the bond held strong. Turning the heat gun higher only caused the item to melt. At this point, the bond was compromised, but the melted plastic was the bigger problem. This shows that heat exposure can still easily damage faux leather; therefore, it is best to keep it in controlled environments when possible.

Cleaning

The cleaning products I tested were rubbing alcohol and white wine vinegar. These are two extremely common products that people often use to treat a stain. The rubbing alcohol was extremely aggressive. It quickly wore through the protective coating and began pulling up the dye. 

I could easily see someone ruining their faux leather by attempting to use alcohol, even in small amounts. The vinegar was much less aggressive, but when allowed to soak, it also damaged the surface. When the leather’s surface is compromised, the surrounding area becomes more likely to peel. Using improper supplies when cleaning faux leather can easily ruin the item entirely. 

Ultraviolet Damage

Most faux leather items will see exposure to the sun throughout their lifespan. However, most ignore the damage it causes. Some may notice the color fading or a slight yellow tint to a heavily protected piece. Yet there is far more besides the visual changes to the leather. Sunlight can cause dryness and stiffness and, most importantly, break down the plastic over time. 

To combat this, faux leather should be periodically conditioned and stored away from sunlight to help prolong the life of a faux leather item. Ultraviolet protection can be applied with the help of specialty products, reducing the damage caused by the sun and helping restore the leather to a healthier condition. 

Conclusion

Although faux leather has a shorter lifespan than real animal leather, the material is often mistreated, impacting its longevity to varying degrees. Sunlight, heat, and improper cleaning supplies may take a toll on an item. It is best to follow the care instructions included with a product and properly store faux leather away from sunlight in a controlled environment when possible. 

Helpful Faux Leather Insights

What is faux leather made of?

Faux leather is made of petroleum-based materials. The base layer of all faux leather is often fabric or paper-like material. This material is then coated using a mixture of plastic, dye, flame retardant, and an ultraviolet protection chemical. 

Is it better to buy real or faux leather?

Real animal leather is best for projects purchased to last a long time or need to be hard-wearing. When buying a smaller product or a less utilized item, faux leather may suffice. However, real animal leather products will last and age much better than faux leather in both situations. 

How long will faux leather last?

Faux leather will last around five years. This can become much shorter, however, if the leather becomes damaged. Wear on faux leather quickly spreads and can ruin an entire piece of material if not addressed. 

How do you keep faux leather from peeling?

Peeling is an inevitable part of faux leather. The older the faux leather is, the older the glue is, and the weaker it becomes. The best way to prolong the life of faux leather is to keep the leather stored properly when not in use and periodically condition it to prevent early damage.

Can peeling faux leather be repaired?

Yes, peeling faux leather can be patched in a variety of ways. A replacement patch can be placed on top of the damaged area. Another method is using leather filler with a new backing fabric to fill the area. This will create a neater finish than the former but is more technical to apply.

What causes faux leather to disintegrate?

Sunlight is the cause of faux leather disintegration. Over time, the ultraviolet rays break down the material’s structure, producing a small acid. This weakens the plastic, causing the faux leather to disintegrate. Ultraviolet protection may be added periodically to help prevent this reaction from occurring. 

Is faux leather hard to maintain?

No, faux leather is much simpler to maintain than other leathers. This is due to the plastic coating that protects the leather. It can be wiped off using a dampened rag rather than requiring specialty products. In addition, this coating will help with water and stain protection, letting faux leather be used slightly more carefree. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Faux leather is a low-cost alternative to animal leather.
  2. The longevity of faux leather is a fraction when compared to animal leather.
  3. Faux leather is not good for the environment due to the plastics used.

In Closing

While many crafters strongly appreciate heritage goods made from high-quality animal leather, there is always a need for a lower-cost alternative. Faux leather fills the role by offering unbeatable prices while still looking like many of our favorite hides. Faux leather may not be ideal in many cases, but it remains versatile for consumers and crafters. 

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