Vegan leather makes it possible for vegans, vegetarians, and anyone who prefers to avoid harming animals for fashion to enjoy shoes, handbags, and clothing typically made of leather. People choose to wear leather due to its look, durability, water resistance, and ease of cleaning, and vegan leather often has the same qualities.
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So what is vegan leather?
Vegan leather, also called artificial leather, synthetic leather, or alternative leather is a leather-like fabric made of natural or synthetic materials to mimic the look and feel of animal leather without harming animals.
Leather-free leather can be made of a variety of materials from plastic to fruit byproducts, each undergoing a different manufacturing process and being sold at a different price point. Most synthetic leather is much cheaper to produce than real leather, so many fashion items in big box stores and discount shops are made this way by default.
What is vegan leather made of?
Many different materials are used to make vegan leather, the most common being polyurethane and PVC, which are actually types of plastic. They are the most cost effective, but face criticism for environmental reasons due to the use of plastic and waste. Many companies that make these types of products have capitalized on the demand for vegan products by rebranding synthetic leather products that they’ve made for years as “vegan leather”.
In recent years, research, technology, and the demand for sustainable, vegan products have encouraged companies to develop innovative, environmentally-friendly alternative leather using renewable materials and waste products. These products are often more expensive, but better for the environment and more long lasting.
Synthetic Vegan Leather
Synthetic vegan leather products are made out of manmade materials. They are the most common types of vegan leather and the most affordable.
PU leather is not leather at all. It’s made of polyurethane and arguably the most common synthetic leather on the market used for all kinds of products from shoes to handbags. PU leather is inexpensive so it’s a common option for budget-conscious shoppers. While some PU leather is biodegradable, PU leather products are prone to cracking and peeling, so it’s not very long lasting, making it a not very environmentally-friendly option due to waste. Companies strategically label products as “PU leather” as many people will think it is real leather and be more likely to purchase it.
Like PU leather, PVC leather is really a type of plastic, polyvinyl chloride. PVC leather is actually worse for the environment than PU leather, but it is thicker and more durable than PU leather, though still not as durable as real leather or many of the other more modern vegan leather options on the market nowadays.
Natural Vegan Leather
Customers are more conscious of the environment nowadays than ever before, eschewing plastic and single-use items from their lifestyles. This has encouraged vegan companies to develop sustainable, long-lasting vegan leather options out of natural materials.
Cactus leather is a durable, environmentally-friendly leather alternative. It’s more durable than most synthetic leather and more breathable than other vegan leather products due to the porousness of the cacti. Cactus plants are resilient to weather changes and a hardy crop. Desserto®, a cactus leather brand based in Mexico. They manufacture their products using a sun-drying process, so no additional energy is used to dry the materials. The company claims its leather lasts 10 years. They currently do not produce any ready-to-wear products, opting to sell their raw materials to companies to create handbags, apparel, and even automotive materials.
Pineapple leather is another type of natural vegan leather, with the added environmental benefit of using pineapple leaves, which are typically a waste product. Piñatex® creates this pineapple leather, highlighting the social impact of the product, which is bringing more jobs and diversified income to pineapple farmers in rural areas. However, there are still synthetic materials mixed into the formula, so pineapple leather is not 100% biodegradable.
If you’re a wine lover, you’ll want to check out grape leather! This natural vegan leather is made with waste products from the wine industry. Grape leather startup Vegea® has already made a splash in the vegan leather industry, partnering with fashion giant H&M for their Conscious Collection, and Bentley to create the interior of their 100th-anniversary car.
- Mycelium (mushrooms)
If you’re looking for truly environmentally-friendly, long-lasting vegan leather, mushroom leather should top your list! Mycelium, a fungus structure found in mushrooms, can be used to create durable vegan leather in a variety of textures from classic leather to suede, and this material is 100% biodegradable. MuSkin, Mylo™️, and MycoWorks are a few companies working to bring this material to consumers everywhere. This all sounds amazing, but what’s the catch? Currently, very few companies are creating widely available products made with mushroom leather, and the few options out there can be very expensive. Hopefully that will change in the near future!
Like other fruit and vegetable leather, mango leather is another vegan leather option that takes food waste and produces a more sustainable leather option. Fruitleather Rotterdam creates mango leather from unsaleable mangoes from mango farms and fruit stands. The downside with mango leather is that it is manufactured with a polyester backing, making it not biodegradable.
- Corn Leather
Corn leather is made from corn waste using an innovative process that converts the dextrose in corn into versatile polymers that can be used to create a variety of leather-like fabric textures without the use of petrochemicals. Viridis® corn leather is made with 60% bio-based materials, including corn.
- Apple Peels
Apple peel leather is vegan leather made from byproducts of apple juice production. It’s sustainable, water resistant, and UV resistant. Companies like Vegatex produce apple peel leather blending the bio-based material with PU leather for leather that’s both durable and animal free.
Cork “leather” has been around for decades from various brands and is a wonderful alternative to leather, especially for handbags. It can be 100% biodegradable as long as the backing and other materials used to make the products is cotton or another natural material. Cork leather has a different look and feel than traditional leather or alternative leathers (it looks like, well, cork!) but if you like it, rock it!
Is vegan leather plastic?
Yes and no. The average synthetic leather available to consumers is made with PU or PVC leather, which is made of plastic. As stated above, many vegan leathers made of food waste need to be blended or coated with PU leather or other synthetic materials to make them durable enough for use.
Is vegan leather sustainable?
It depends. There are so many factors to consider when determining whether a product is truly sustainable such as biodegradability of the material, land use to grow crops, social responsibility, other materials used to create the product (for example, lining, zippers, closure, and adornments on a handbag), jet fuel used to transport materials and finished products, and how long the product will last before needing to be replaced.
Many of these natural vegan leather products are still relatively new and only available in small markets, so it’s too soon to say which one is the best or most sustainable, especially if only a handful of people can access or afford them.
When deciding which products are right for you, consider whether 100% biodegradable leather is better than a 60% biodegradable product if it doesn’t last as long, or if the product is repairable.
While animal leather is made from waste products of the beef industry, the chemicals used in the tanning process are horrible for the environment and people, polluting the air and waterways, and exposing workers to hazardous fumes.
There is no perfect choice. While some natural vegan products still require the use of plastics, they are still far better than the environmental and health impact of real leather. Some vegans consider purchasing second-hand animal leather to be more environmentally friendly than contributing to the production of new vegan leather, as the damage is already done, but this is a personal choice. Luckily, it sounds like so many innovative options will be more accessible in the future!
Vegan Leather vs. Faux Leather
Vegan leather and faux leather are essentially the same category of materials branded differently. The terms are interchangeable, but each one may have a different connotation socially.
Faux leather or “pleather” as it used to be more commonly called, usually refers to PU leather or PVC leather.
The term “vegan leather” can be applied to PU leather, PVC leather, or one of the many natural vegan leathers like pineapple, cactus, and mushroom leather.
Vegan Leather vs Real Leather
Vegan leather has come a long way in recent years and with so many companies innovating in the industry, vegan leather may be almost indistinguishable from real leather in the future!
Vegan leather can be used in a wide variety of applications just as real leather, from apparel and handbags to phone cases and furniture. Unfortunately, vegan leather typically doesn’t last as long as real leather and tends to crack and peel over time, rather than “breaking in” as real leather does. While vegan leather production is typically more environmentally friendly than animal leather production, it creates more waste. Opt to repair your items before replacing and purchase quality vegan leather whenever possible.
It’s relatively easy to tell the difference between vegan leather and real leather. Vegan leather will have a shinier, more plasticky look and feel, regardless of the material used, while real leather is more matte in appearance and softer to the touch. When in doubt, do a sniff test. Real leather has a very distinct odor.
Is vegan leather waterproof?
Yes, vegan leather is usually waterproof or water resistant. The plastic in PU and PVC leather repels water and many of the natural vegan leathers such as apple leather and cactus leather are waterproof. If you’re not sure, you can look up a specific product or contact the company.
If you purchase a leather alternative product that is not fully waterproof, you may be able to apply a water-resistant coating with a commercially-available spray or balm.
How to clean vegan leather
Each type of vegan leather has different care instructions so it’s best to refer to the care tag or washing instructions provided by the company. Many products are spot clean or hand wash only, while others are machine washable as long as you wash them inside out in cold water and let them hang dry.
No matter how you clean them, washing your vegan leather products, especially in a washing machine, will reduce their longevity so keeping them clean and waiting longer between washes is best. Of course, clothing needs to be washed more frequently! A way to increase the time between washes for vegan leather clothing is to wear under clothes such as leggings and undershirts so the leather isn’t directly touching the skin, keeping it protected from sweat and body odor. Then simply spot clean or wipe down the exterior rather than washing the full article of clothing.
Vegan Leather Brands We Love
These are our favorite 100% vegan brands that sell super chic products made with vegan leather (amongst other materials).
Will’s Vegan Store sells shoes, boots, outerwear, and accessories for women and men. Their products are made with bio-based vegan leather from Italy and their operations are carbon neutral.
Price range: $40-$300
The Vegan Wearhouse sells vegan leather handbags, totes, and lifestyle products like home goods and vegan beauty products from over 40 different vegan brands. Many of their vegan leather products are from the brand MERSI, which makes products in a variety of leather textures.
Price range: $7-145
Immaculate Vegan is a London-based brand that offers ethical, high-quality, and sustainable fashion with items from luxury women’s clothing to men’s accessories and baby goods. They offer vegan purses and totes made with cactus leather from luxury vegan handbag brand Kaila Katherine.
Price range: $5-2400 (converted from British Pounds)
- Matt & Nat
Matt & Nat. Their products are made with a variety of materials including PVB, or polyvinyl butyral, from 100% recycled windshield glass resin, sustainably-sourced nylon and rubber, and PU leather.
Price range: $15-300
Stella McCartney, fashion designer and animal rights activist daughter of the famous Paul McCartney, has a sustainable clothing line for women, men, and children. In 2021, she launched the world’s first Mylo™️ mycelium leather garments and runway bag, made with mushrooms, one of the most sustainable vegan leather options.
Price range: $30-8500
Von Holzhausen is an innovative brand with a line of handbags, wallets, and accessories made with bamboo leather. Tesla owners can even hire them to upholster their car interiors for a steep price. If you’re curious about their leather products, you can order a swatch on the website for $2.50.
Price range: $95-500
If you’re in the market for a vegan handbag and looking for something a little different, check out Mashu. Their bags are made with sustainable vegan pineapple leather in designs that look more like sculptures than purses.
Price range: $275-550 (converted from British pounds)
Samara is a sister duo that sells vegan women’s clothing, handbags, and accessories made with apple leather, water-based PU leather, recycled ocean plastics, organic cotton, bamboo, and castor seeds, a plastic alternative. Their products are luxurious and feminine.
Price range: $40-$295
Noize offers a unique line of vegan-friendly clothing, outerwear, footwear, and even dog clothes. Their vegan leather products are made with PU leather, and they also offer vegan wool, faux fur, and faux suede products.
Price range: $8-300
Alkeme Atelier is one cool vegan brand that lives up to its motto, “Each bag created at our Atelier is a piece of art.” Their signature handbag, the Water Moon Satchel, looks like an unfolded paper fan, combining form and function. It’s made with sustainable vegan leather and comes in countless colors.
Price range: $59-549
While the fashion industry has offered so many new, high fashion options with the advent of innovative, sustainable materials, some vegans prefer a more natural, bac- to-basics look. Luna Bags has just 3 styles available in their bag collection, each one made with quality, eco-friendly materials with an understated look that’s a little bit hippy.
Price range: $155-205
More vegan leather brands we love:
- Gunas New York
- Jeane & Jax
- Luxtra London
- Vegia Bags
- Sans Beast
- Jen & Co.
- Melie Bianco
- Denise Roobol
Vegan Leather Products We Love
Vegan Leather Pants
Where to buy: Zara
These chic beige faux leather pants are affordable and versatile for the workplace, brunch with the girls, or a day out. They are made with PU leather and are machine washable.
Vegan Leather Leggings
Where to buy: Aritzia
Aritzia’s vegan leather pants and leggings are some of their most popular products. These high-waisted vegan leather leggings are stretchy, breathable, and buttery soft.
Vegan Leather Jacket
Where to buy: Veda
If you want to try biodegradable and sustainable cactus leather, the Vegan Baby Jane Cactus Leather Jacket is for you! Pair with a flowy dress for an edgy but feminine look, or play up the biker chick look with vegan leather pants. While this jacket is pricy, cactus leather is much more durable than PU leather, so it will last much longer, which is better for the environment and your wallet in the long run.
Vegan Leather Skirt
Where to buy: Banana Republic
Who doesn’t love a fashionable leather skirt?! This vegan leather midi skirt from Banana Republic is structured but flowy and comes in 3 colors.
Vegan Leather Purse
Where to buy: Matt & Nat
Price: $132-256 (depending on color)
The GEAN Large Vegan Crossbody Bag is a gorgeous vegan leather purse made with sustainable Vegatex AppleSkin™ apple peel leather and like all Matt & Nat handbags, the lining is made with 100% recycled water bottles. It comes in 3 stylish colors that go with any outfit.
Vegan Leather Backpack
Where to buy: Monos
The Monos Metro Backpack comes in both nylon and vegan leather options and 7 sophisticated colors. It makes a lovely work or travel bag.
Vegan Leather Laptop Bag
Where to buy: Pixie Mood
The Greta Work Tote from Pixie Mood is a recycled vegan leather laptop bag that holds up to a 16” laptop. It has a water bottle holder, several interior and exterior pockets, and 2 detachable crossbody straps.
Vegan Leather Boots
Where to buy: Immaculate Vegan
Price: $125 (converted from British Pounds)
Chelsea boots are SO chic and go with any outfit in any season, so every vegan should have a nice pair of vegan leather Chelsea boots. These gorg boots from Immaculate Vegan are made with bio-based vegan Italian leather made from cereal crops and viscose, a natural material derived from eucalyptus.
Vegan Leather Wallet
Where to buy: Will’s Vegan Store
Everyone needs a nice wallet! Will’s Vegan Store has a few classic, no-frills options made with sustainable bio-based vegan leather.
Vegan Leather Gloves
Where to buy: Vamp
Keep your hands warm this winter with a sophisticated pair of vegan leather gloves. These gloves from Vamp have a unique, extra-long style so your wrists and forearms will stay covered.
Vegan Leather Watch Band
Where to buy: Sandell
Swap out your old watch strap for a high-quality, sustainable vegan leather strap made with recaptured solvents and recycled products. It makes a great gift too!
Vegan Leather Belt
Where to buy: Black Nopal
Vegan leather belts made with old-school materials like PVC and PU leather can wear out easily, so upgrade your wardrobe with a Desserto® cactus leather belt from Black Nopal. They offer belts in a variety of colors at a reasonable price point.
Vegan Leather Journal
Where to buy: Erin Condren
You’ll be inspired to stay organized with this vegan leather and aluminum-plated coil-bound planner and intentions journal. It offers weekly, monthly, and yearly planning, note pages, and goals and intentions free writing prompts.
What are your thoughts on all of the vegan leather options available nowadays?
Leave a comment below!
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