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Vegan Leather – Excellent Plant and Fiber-Based Materials

The race for a sustainable leather substitute has led to many different types of vegan leather. I learned about the different types of vegan leather to better understand the new industry.  

Vegan leather is a catch-all term for leather substitutes that do not use animal supplies during manufacturing. A base material is often combined with vinyl or other plastics, which is then bonded to a backing material. Its pricing starts at $1, but newer leathers are as high as $25 per square foot.

Vegan leather encapsulates many leather alternatives, each with its pros and cons. In this article, we will look at the different vegan leather types and what sets them apart. 

What Is Vegan Leather?

Vegan leather is an industry term used to describe any leather alternative that does not use animal supplies during its making. Instead of relying on animal hides, vegan leather uses a base material combined with plastic and other chemicals to give it comparable qualities, including:

  1. UV protection
  2. Flame retardant
  3. Fragrance
  4. Stabilizer 

Each vegan leather will have its unique combination of additives and different backing and finishing methods. To achieve the look of leather, the vegan leather will be hot pressed with a texture during the bonding process. 

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • History of Vegan Leather
  • Vegan Leather Overview Table
  • What Is Vegan Leather Made Of 
  • Synthetic Vegan Leather
  • Plant-Based Vegan Leather
  • Vegan Leather vs. Real Leather
  • How Is Vegan Leather Made
  • Is Vegan Leather Better for the Environment?
  • Pros of Vegan Leather
  • Cons of Vegan Leather
  • Common Items Made With Vegan Leather
  • Where To Buy Vegan Leather
  • How To Care for Vegan Leather
  • My Personal Research Into Vegan Leather
  • Helpful Vegan Leather Insights
  • Key Takeaways
PU Leather Handbag - Vegan Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
PU Leather Handbag

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

A common misconception about vegan leather is the assumption that they are all the same. This is far from true, as vegan leathers have significant differences. Not only do the characteristics change between each type, but so does the finishing process and amount of plastic used.

Well-known leathers such as PU or PVC rely heavily on plastic for durability. They both feel highly artificial and are often what people think of when discussing vegan leather. Newer vegan leathers have grown from this manufacturing process, limiting the amount of plastic used for their leather.

Instead, they utilize similar fiber structures found naturally in various fruits, plants, and mushrooms. While this type of vegan leather is often less durable, it does better at recreating the feel of animal leather and providing a premium product in an otherwise artificial space. 

History of Vegan Leather

Vegan leather was first made in Germany in the 19th century. At this time, the Country was at war and required supplies for its military. In turn, pressoff was invented, a treated paper pulp layered to create a leather-like material. Unfortunately, pressoff had glaring durability flaws that resulted in the inevitable replacement of the material by plastic-centered leather goods. 

With plastics becoming a larger environmental concern, vegan leather manufacturers have been looking for alternatives that may be more environmentally friendly. Various companies are trying to phase out plastic from their vegan leathers using fibers found in plants, fruits, and other biodegradable goods. 

Vegan Leather Overview Table

CharacteristicDetails
PU LeatherMade from polyurethane, it is durable yet feels artificial. 
PVC LeatherMade from polyvinyl chloride, it has additional protective coatings that provide extreme durability but lack flexibility and feel most like plastic.
Cactus LeatherMade from cactus leaves that have been grounded up and combined with a resin for protection. It is less durable but offers good flexibility and feel.
Pineapple LeatherMade from the fibers of pineapple leaves, with a resin poured on top. It lacks durability and is susceptible to fire and water damage. 
Mushroom LeatherMade from mycelium grown from mushrooms. It requires very little plastic and offers great water resistance. It is yet to be fully developed and is priced much higher.  
Apple LeatherMade from a combination of grounded apple waste and polyurethane. It is wear and water-resistant but feels more artificial than other vegan leathers and is not biodegradable. 
Mango LeatherMade from mangos that are turned into pulp, mixed with additives, and finished with an artificial coat. It is flexible but lacks durability and has a unique look based on the mango used.
Vegan Leather Characteristics

What Is Vegan Leather Made Of 

Vegan leather aims to avoid using animal hides during manufacturing. As a substitute, companies use a variety of plastics, grounded fibers, and other harvested supplies. These act as the base material for vegan leather, which may then be combined with plastic or resin to make the material more durable.

Some vegan leathers will also require a backing to help stabilize the vegan material. This can be various fabrics that the vegan leather mix will be bonded onto using a heat press.

This video by Business Insider provides an example of how one vegan leather type is made, showcasing the process and the environmental benefits of switching to vegan leather.

Synthetic Vegan Leather 

PU Leather

PU leather is perhaps the most prominent type of vegan leather, as it has been a staple for decades. The material is a polyurethane mixture that is textured and heat-pressed, which bonds it onto a backing such as fabric or paper-like materials.

The downside of PU is its heavy use of plastics. While this provides a highly wear and water-resistant material, it makes the leather feel cheap. Only able to capture the look of animal leather. 

PVC Leather

PVC leather is very similar to PU leather as it also uses a mixture bonded to a backing material. Where the leather differs is in the finishing process. PVC leather takes the protection process further, adding multiple layers of additional finish. This makes the material much more rigid and prone to cracking when bent. 

Plant-Based Vegan Leather

Cactus

Vegan leather made from cactus is taken from the plant’s leaves. Once harvested, the leaves will regrow, making it a much more sustainable option. The leaves are left out to dry, removing humidity to allow the fibers to be harvested. The harvested fibers are ground and become the base material for the leather. 

Cactus leather is then put in a vat where dye and a stabilizer will be added. To finish the cactus leather, a resin is poured over the top to provide protection. Cactus leather may not be as strong as synthetic vegan leather, but it does a better job of recreating the flexibility and feel of animal leather. 

Kombucha

Made from a combination of tea, and a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, kombucha leather is a 100% biodegradable vegan leather. The bacteria will grow a pellicle, a skin formed in the container it is created in, that can be used as a leather alternative.

These skins are layered on top of each other to give the material durability and thickness. This process allows for complete control of the vegan leather’s flexibility, durability, and thickness. Unfortunately, kombucha leather has one of the shortest lifespans, only a few years.

Over time, the material will shrink, and its climate can either make it more rigid or pliable. One unique ability of kombucha leather is its ability to bond to itself. Holes can be easily patched by placing a new sheet of the pellicle onto the existing leather; with time, the kombucha leather will combine to cover the damage. 

Pineapple

Pineapple leather, also known as Piñatex, is a vegan leather made from pineapple leaves. They are removed from the fruit and sliced to extract the fibers inside. These fibers are then washed and left to dry to then be woven into a felt-like material. This is the base used in pineapple leather before dye is added to it, and it is coated in a protective resin.

This leather is a lower-cost alternative to animal leather, but has drawbacks. Pineapple leather is very vulnerable to many types of damage, limiting the potential lifespan of items due to durability concerns. However, by using pineapple leaves, the waste generated by the fruit is reduced by 30%, making a positive environmental impact.

Mushroom

Mushroom leather is not made from the mushroom itself but rather from the fungal network it creates. Mycelium is grown using organic waste, creating tightly woven sheets that can be harvested for use. The benefit of mycelium is its great tensile strength and soft surface texture. In addition, mushroom leather is more water resistant than other vegan leathers. 

By using mycelium for leather, manufacturing can utilize organic waste and lower the amount of water it takes to produce the material. While mushroom leather still requires some plastic to improve its durability, it uses the least of all the leather alternatives. 

A Wallet Made of Mushroom Leather Material - Vegan Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
A Wallet Made of Mushroom Leather Material

Apple

Made using the pomace and skin of apple waste generated by the juice industry, apple leather is one of the most established vegan leathers. The remnants are ground into a fine powder, which can then be mixed with polyurethane before being bonded to a fabric backing. The mixture is half polyurethane and half grounded apple waste. 

The heavy use of plastic in apple leather makes it highly wear and water-resistant. The leather is also much easier to come across at a competitive price. However, the downside is that the leather feels much more artificial than other vegan leathers. 

Mango

Mango leather is made very similarly to apple leather. The mangos are turned into a pulp and have various additives mixed in before being set aside to dehydrate. The sheets of mango leather are then sent out to leather tanneries to have a protective coating added. 

While mango leather is fairly flexible, it lacks durability overall. Before the protective coating is added, the sheets of mango leather can even be pulled apart. In addition, the production of mango leather is currently limited, so the cost of the leather is much higher than that of others.

Vegan Leather vs. Real Leather

Durability

The initial impressions of vegan leather is fairly strong. The material offers good water resistance and does not scratch easily. However, the longevity of the material completely ruins it. Unlike real leather, which can last a lifetime, vegan leather is expected to last around five years. 

While real leather may show wear more easily, its ability to remain intact for decades is a key point. Vegan leather will inevitably begin to peel due to the multi-layer construction, often ruining the entire piece before reaching its projected lifespan. 

Price

At the lowest end, vegan leather costs about $1 per square foot. This can be further reduced by purchasing in larger quantities as vegan leather is sold by the yard. On the other end, there are emerging vegan leathers that demand much higher prices due to their smaller production scale. 

This includes leathers made of fruits, mushrooms, or plants. Typically, this leather will be sold on request at around $25 per square foot. However, their prices will likely decline over time as production scales up. 

Flexibility

The flexibility of vegan leather will depend on the type of leather made. PVC vegan leather, for example, will have a thick protective coating that will make it difficult to bend without cracking. On the other hand, there are vegan leathers that limit their use of plastic. By doing so, the leather can become more supple. 

When looking for flexible vegan leather, avoid those that use heavy plastics. Instead, favor those that limit their use and are applied to a fabric backing. 

Sustainability

A common goal for vegan leather manufacturers is to create a sustainable product, starting with renewable resources that can be produced much more quickly than animals and in a more environmentally friendly way. This includes using leaves, fruits, mushroom fibers, and more. 

Where vegan leather begins to falter is in its use of plastic. As it stands, all vegan leather uses at least some plastic, which prevents their material from being fully biodegradable. With further research, manufacturers want to eliminate plastics, creating the potential for a completely sustainable product. 

Water-resistance

Vegan leather is not entirely waterproof but offers excellent water resistance. Unlike animal leather, vegan leather is non-porous, making it difficult for liquids to penetrate the surface. In addition, the polyurethane, or vinyl, coating used for vegan leather creates a protective barrier. 

When liquid is left to soak into the surface, damage can easily be done, causing the leather to crack or peel due to changes in the adhesive. All spills should be cleaned as soon as possible to prevent this. 

Quality

Much like leather made from animals, the quality of vegan leather can vary greatly. The materials used in the process when creating vegan leather shape the final product. A heavy reliance on plastics will create stiffer leather when compared to one that uses leaves or other natural powdered material as a base.

Similarly, the backing material makes a big difference in quality. Some vegan leathers use a paper-like baking process that produces a much lower quality product, as it is more prone to damage. 

How Is Vegan Leather Made

Vegan leather starts as a base material that could consist of powdered leaves, fruit, or other substances. This is mixed with a stabilizer used to help bond the material together. Since vegan leather is artificial, flame retardant and ultraviolet protection will also need to be added. Once this has been mixed, the dye and a protective mix are incorporated. Common substances include vinyl and polyurethane. 

This new mixture is then poured onto various fabrics or textured paper, which will then be bonded to the backing by heat and pressure, creating sheets of vegan leather.

Each vegan leather will have its unique combination of additives and different backing and finishing methods.

Is Vegan Leather Better for the Environment?

A large selling point for vegan leather is how much better it is for the environment. While this holds truth, there are things the material does that are harmful. Initially, vegan leather removes the need for animals and extensive water use. However, it still relies on plastics and, therefore, loses its biodegradability.

Overall, vegan leather remains a net positive for the environment, but until plastics are removed, it is hard to say it is perfect. This is amplified by vegan leather’s shorter lifespan, potentially resulting in even more waste. 

Pros of Vegan Leather

Over the years, vegan leather has slowly become more present in everyday objects. This popularity is largely due to a competitive price point, but new inventions have pushed the limitations of the material. Other benefits of vegan leather include:

  1. Lower cost than genuine leather
  2. No animal is harmed in the making of vegan leather
  3. Wide variety of colors at different saturations
  4. Potentially larger pieces to work with than standard hides

Cons of Vegan Leather

Although vegan leather strives for animal-free leather, the material comes at a cost. Vegan leather simply does not offer the same durability and longevity as animal leather. Its plastic coating helps add this, but becomes a liability as it peels over time. Other downsides to began leather include:

  1. Lacks the durability and longevity of genuine leather 
  2. Not a breathable material 
  3. Can melt when exposed to fire
  4. Not yet fully biodegradable as it uses a plastic surface

Michael Meyer, Sascha Dietrich, Haiko Schulz, and Anke Mondschein, from the FILK Freiberg Institute gGmbH in Freiberg, Germany, compared various vegan leathers to animal hides in search of a leather alternative that can match up to leather.

Unfortunately, they found that no vegan leather currently offers the same combination of tensile strength, tear, flex, and water resistance. While many vegan leathers can perform well in some of these areas, they often fall short in others, highlighting the difficulties when attempting to create a substitute for animal hides.

Common Items Made With Vegan Leather

Vegan leather tries to fill the spot of leather products in every way possible. Seemingly, any item made of leather may also be found in vegan leather. This is great for those who solely use vegan leather but want a diverse collection. Common vegan leather items include:

  1. Bags
  2. Purses
  3. Shoes
  4. Garments
  5. Belts
  6. Wallets 
  7. Furniture
  8. Watch straps
  9. Accessories

Where To Buy Vegan Leather

Vegan leather can be commonly found in various items in stores. When looking for it, a tag will proudly proclaim that the leather is vegan. Those looking to craft with vegan leather will easily find it at fabric stores. The type they carry will be dependent on the retailer, however.

The best option when looking for specific vegan leather is to shop online. Vegan leather companies often have a list of reputable distributors or a way to purchase directly. You will usually be required to call the company to place an order with them.

How To Care for Vegan Leather

Caring for vegan leather is a fairly simple process. The surface of vegan leather is plastic, meaning it can withstand water quite well. If the leather becomes dirty, a damp cloth can be used to wipe away the mess.

Vegan leather will still need to be conditioned, as the material can become rigid, leading to cracking. To apply the conditioner, a clean cloth should be used to saturate the leather completely, and a separate cloth should be used to wipe off the excess and dry it. 

My Personal Research Into Vegan Leather

Although there are plenty of types of vegan leather, they often get lumped together as an artificial, inferior material. While animal leather has many benefits over vegan leather, it is also important to highlight some of the best features of the material — its environmentally friendly qualities. This is especially true as newer types of vegan leather attempt to break the stigma behind the product. 

Limiting the Use of Plastic

By far, the biggest issue with vegan leather is using plastics during manufacturing. This goes against the “environmentally friendly” goal the material strives for as they are not biodegradable. Some of the most common vegan leather types, such as PU or PVC, are almost entirely made from plastics. 

Other alternatives, such as cactus or apple leather, may reduce the percentage of plastic required down to a 50% split. The closest we have come to eliminating plastic completely from vegan leather is those that start with a fibrous structure.

This includes mushroom’s mycelium and pineapple’s leaves. Both materials provide a similar fiber structure to that of animal leather, allowing for a stronger material without the use of as much plastic. Their plastic usage can be brought down to around 20% or entirely eliminated at the cost of durability. 

While the industry still requires more advancements before eliminating plastic with no drawbacks, we are much closer to the goal of potentially making vegan leather a truly environmentally friendly leather alternative. 

Vegan Leather Type% of Plastic Used in Manufacturing
PUNearly 100%
PVCNearly 100%
Cactus50%
Apple50%
Mycelium (mushroom)20%
Pineapple leaf20%
Plastic Used in Manufacturing Vegan Leather

Water Usage

An often overlooked issue when discussing leather is the amount of water needed during manufacturing. Large animal hides may use over 1,000 liters during the tanning process. Vegan leather has significantly reduced the water needed to produce the product. One of the most water-efficient vegan leathers is mushroom, which takes only 45 liters of water.

This reduction in water usage is true for many of the plant-based vegan leathers, though their efficiency may vary. This benefit of vegan leather helps reduce the leather’s overall carbon footprint and if fully adopted, can make big environmental changes, especially for lands surrounding tanneries, which often end up contaminated. 

Conclusion

There has been a lot of progress made within the vegan leather industry. Many of the newer leathers have been shown to improve in key areas where past leathers may have struggled. In addition, by adopting these new manufacturing methods, companies have only gotten closer to finding truly sustainable and environmentally friendly leather.

Helpful Vegan Leather Insights

What is vegan leather made of?

The base material used to create vegan leather will vary. It may include fruits, leaves, mushrooms, and other products. These are typically altered to produce a sheet where further processing may take place. What all vegan leathers currently have in common is their use of plastic. The coating is necessary to provide the material with protection and help bond the materials together. 

Is vegan leather good quality?

The quality of vegan leather is debatable. Compared to other fabrics, vegan leather is fairly strong and does a fair job of copying the look of genuine leather. When compared to real leather, however, vegan leather falls short. The material lacks the durability and longevity that makes genuine leather so beloved. Therefore, it is up to the consumer to decide if vegan leather is right for them. 

What is the downside of vegan leather?

The biggest downside of vegan leather is the lack of durability and longevity compared to genuine leather. The material does a great job of emulating a lot of the visual qualities of leather; however, a big appeal of animal leather is its generational potential. Vegan leather will only last around five years, while genuine leather can last a lifetime.

Is vegan leather basically plastic?

To describe vegan leather as plastic would be disingenuous. While the material relies on plastic, the base is made from other sources. In addition, vegan leather companies are working on moving away from the use of plastic, limiting the amount they use in their product, with hopes of finding a way to remove it completely.  

Is vegan leather just pleather?

While vegan leather and pleather fall under the same category as faux leather, there is a difference. Pleather uses polymer as its base, while vegan leather has begun exploring other options, such as fruits, plants, and mushrooms. This change makes vegan leather a slightly better choice for the environment as it is potentially more sustainable. 

Is vegan leather Ethical?

Yes, for the most part, vegan leather is a fairly ethical material that could use some improvements. The leather uses no animal but relies on plastic. This prevents vegan leather from being biodegradable. However, some vegan leather companies are looking at ways to remove plastic from their leather to create a fully sustainable product. 

What is the lifespan of vegan leather?

The lifespan of vegan leather is only around fice years. This is much shorter than real leather. Vegan leather typically fails due to peeling or cracking caused by the multilayer construction. When vegan leather’s surface is damaged, the outermost layers begin to peel, and there is no way to keep the surrounding area in place.

Key Takeaways

  1. Vegan leather is a type of faux leather, meaning no animals were used to make it.
  2. There are various types of vegan leather, including those made from vegetables or fruits.
  3. Vegan leather is not yet as durable as leather made from animals, but advancements are being made.

In Closing

Although vegan leather has shortcomings, advancements are constantly being made to improve the material. It is mainly chosen by those looking to avoid using animal products. In the future however, we may see a switch to vegan leather as it may offer more sustainability for similar results. 

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