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Vegan leather is more than just a short-term fad. As the desire for vegan-friendly fashion increases, so does the drive to find the best possible vegan leather materials and processes to make that happen. For a long time now, faux leather aka vegan leather has revolved around PU leather. While preferable, it isn’t ideal. So, in came vegan designers and manufacturers with bold new ideas for alternative plant-based vegan leather products that are not genuine leather made. The result was a revolution in vegan leather made accessories with greater choice and more appealing materials.
All these choices can mean that we don’t always know exactly what companies offer when they promote vegan-friendly alternatives. In this guide, you will find a series of vegan leather materials and their origins to show you the range of options available. The best of these are the plant-based vegan leather and biowaste options. But we will also look at PU and PVC materials because of their prevalence in the industry. Before that, let’s look at why these vegan leather alternatives are so important in a world that still values animal-based leather.
Real Leather Has Lost Its Appeal for Many Consumers
There is no doubt that there is a place for real leather in the fashion industry as there are still people that value the material’s properties. Many of these are also happy to overlook the origins of the skin involved or simply have no issues about killing animals for human gain. They may have similar views on real fur.
However, there is no hiding the fact that real leather means that something had to die to create it. This stark truth is harder and harder to swallow for consumers looking to turn away from meat-based diets and embrace environmentalism. There is also the fact that you don’t always know what animal died to make the item you are wearing. You can’t assume your leather work shoes are cow either.
The process of making real leather is also pretty grim especially when compared to the process of making vegan leather. The skin requires intensive preparation to remove all the hair, fat, and other tissue for clean skin. That skin then gets sold off to the tanners, who treat the skin with chemicals to toughen it out and stop it from breaking down. After all, you don’t want the real leather material on your handbag decomposing over time. This process isn’t particularly great for the environment either. From there, it gets shipped off again to manufacturers to turn into real leather consumer goods.
Why We Need Vegan Leather
Vegan leather is an important part of the fashion industry as it gives a wide market the chance to wear beautiful accessories without feeling guilty over the materials used. You don’t have to be a strict vegan to feel uncomfortable wearing real leather. Vegetarians that still eat dairy may not like the idea of wearing the skin of an animal that died for the meat industry. With vegetarianism, veganism, and flexitarians’ all growing across the world, companies need to adapt to offer suitable vegan leather choices.
Real leather is a great material for bags, shoes, belts, and more when you ignore the origin. It is a strong material built to withstand abrasion and repeated use. It is easy to craft and shape into beautiful styles to make items we can show off. The treated surface can also allow for rich colors, shine, and weatherproofing. So, it is understandable that a non-meat eater would like the same properties without relying on the death of an animal. However, opting for vegan leather is the better alternative.
Faux leather products aren’t uncommon as there are materials around that mimic the look and feel of leather without the animal origin. Many assume that Pleather, or PU leather, is the only option. But it is now part of a wider market and declining in popularity. That is why we need a broader idea of what is vegan leather.
What Is PU Leather?
PU leather is the combination of a base material and polyurethane coating to mimic real leather. The PU coating is laminated onto polyester, cotton, or nylon, and a grain effect is created with a roller. It passes as the real thing without the same thickness and durability.
While some love PU vegan leather for its softer feel and appearance, it is a plastic coating often on a man-made material. This isn’t ideal for those looking for a natural vegan leather material that suits their vegan lifestyle.
What About PVC?
PVC is similar in that it is a plastic-based material with the shine and flexibility of leather yet it is a form of vegan leather. This one isn’t considered faux leather, however, because of the lack of similarities and the effect of the surface. PVC is also a bigger concern when talking about plastics in fashion and requires a lot of fossil fuels in its production.
There Are Environmental Concerns About Faux Leather
Naturally, many people turn to faux leather or vegan leather like PU leather over real leather because of its vegan properties. But that doesn’t mean it is a better option for the environment. Pleather and PVC leather are both problematic. For example, while real leather takes approximately 50 years to decompose, PVC can stick around for as much as 500 years. Also, when plastic breaks down in landfills or as discarded trash, they leech microplastics into waterways, eventually polluting the ocean. On top of that, the chemical processes for creating faux leather have an environmental impact too.
Another concern is that not all leather products with PU leather are 100% that material. There are products labeled as Bycast or Bicast – depending on the spelling. Here “bi” means two materials cast together. Sometimes this will be PU leather mixed with real leather. If you can’t find any clear sign that a product is vegan leather, you may want to go for a different material.
Plant-based Leather Offers a Better Alternative
So far, PU leather has been the vegan leather of choice for a lot of vegans and those looking to embrace cruelty-free materials. We know it isn’t perfect, but it is better than real leather. However, there has been a steady rise in companies turning to alternative options from plant-based sources. There is a desire to see what happens when we process biowaste and turn it into usable and wearable material. Also, there are sustainable materials for harvest with great potential.
Below are some of the most interesting options around right now. There are sure to be other niche ideas we’ve missed out on, but these are some of the most interesting and commercial. You can learn more about how vegan leather is made and see if there is a material to watch out for.
Harvesting Plant-based Materials for Leather Production
A lot of the best vegan leather substitutes come from waste materials from other industries – as seen below. But it is possible to grow crops and use other living organisms in a sustainable way for a harvest. The right crop can grow in a controlled environment and replenish with ease without destroying habitats or requiring too much in the way of resources. Mushrooms and cork trees are popular examples at the moment.
Can You Make Leather from Mushrooms?
Yes, mushrooms are a fungus, not a plant. But, for the sake of differentiating between plant-based and animal-based materials, we are counting mushrooms here. After all, they are certainly vegan and can be made into a type of vegan leather.
Mushrooms are pretty leathery on the surface, to begin with, and a must-have in any vegan kitchen. So, it is no surprise to see mushroom leather as part of this list. What is interesting here is that it all stems from the roots of the mushrooms and structures called mycelium. If this sounds familiar, that is because mycelium is also of interest in the vegan food industry. Fake meat products can contain mycelium as a protein instead of crops like soy.
What makes mycelium so appealing is that it is so easy to grow and great for the environment. You aren’t relying on a crop that requires lots of water and space and damages the local ecosystem. You can grow mushrooms for mycelium in a small space and generate lots of these cells for processing. Once you have enough to sell, it is up to the buyer whether to turn it into vegan leather, food, or something else. It also helps that the mushroom vegan leather is pretty strong and durable.
Using Cork to Make Strong Vegan Leather Products
One option that has a lot of fans at the moment is cork. Cork looks a lot like real leather at first glance, with its similar tones from the dyes and natural imperfections. However, this material doesn’t have the same layering that leads to cracking and peeling on the surface. It is also incredibly hard-wearing, allowing for some nice durable products that should last for years.
You might wonder why we would champion something taken from a tree when promoting environmental materials. But cork is actually highly sustainable when treated with respect. Cork production isn’t like timber. You aren’t cutting down a healthy tree to use the material, and therefore aren’t removing an important home for nature. Instead, the cork is stripped from the surface of the tree at just the right time and the tree continues to replenish and grow. This means healthy and sustainable forest areas that work for us and wildlife at the same time.
How Is Cork Leather Made?
As mentioned before, it all starts with that careful process of stripping the cork bark from the trees at just the right time. Extractors that know the area well can work on a careful schedule to take the bark at the ideal time without harming any of the trees. These sheets are cork are then taken for processing, where they are dried, boiled, and dried again to form malleable sheets of material. They are then shaved into thinner layers and laminated with sealants to make that stronger faux leather material akin to real leather.
During this process, producers can also add natural dyes to create the tones consumers are looking for. For example, you can get some naturally pale cork leather products that highlight the natural patination. Yet, there is always going to be a demand for dark black and brown “tanned” leather to mimic authentic products. Once the material has had its final protective spray, it is ready to turn into all kinds of products.
What Can You Make from Cork Leather?
The great thing about this tough cork faux leather is that it is perfect for durable accessories. Impressive companies are working to create the best vegan cork belts possible with these manufacturing techniques. You get a familiar look in a belt that won’t crack when bent too often. The classic designs and buckles also add some style.
Cork and mushroom are great alternative plant-based faux leather materials. The latter is now a big part of vegan fashion and here to stay. But that doesn’t mean it is going to be the best option for your needs and tastes. That is why it is a good idea to look at further developments in the world of bio-waste leather products.
What Are Bio-waste Leather Products?
Bio-waste leather products are different from cork in origin. With cork, you have a material grown and harvested for this specific purpose and reused in a cycle. With bio-waste, we are talking about materials that may have been discarded entirely unless collected and repurposed in this way. This approach makes sense because animal leather is a similar waste product easily discarded if skins are thrown away. It is all about making full use of a biological resource. With plant-based leather, this can be the pulp of over-ripe fruit, discarded material, and skins from juicing, the leaves cut away from the fruit during harvest, or anything else. This desire to look for new materials in a waste product has led to interesting materials from:
Apple Leather is something you may see appear here and there in vegan leather collections. AppleSkin is the product name – which is apt as it comes from the skins of apples used in other industries. That skin is a common waste material in juicing and, with so many apples used to create apple juice across the world, that’s a lot of material in need of a better purpose.
AppleSkin is an Italian product that takes this skin and reduces it into a dry powder. This is then processed into a new faux-leather material. The effect may not be as interesting to look at as other natural dried materials. But it is a definite talking point.
This one is a little newer in the fashion world, but one that is sure to catch on quickly. Mango leather is very easy to make – to the point where you can make your own sheets and strips at home. The only problem there is that you wouldn’t be able to have enough to form a durable material to shape into a usable accessory. All you have to do at home is blitz your overripe mangos into a puree, boil it to remove any potential bacteria, and then spread it thinly on baking parchment. Once dried out, you get thin sheets of a leathery material to do with as you please.
When you expand this onto a more industrial scale with better tools and processes, you end up with a great supply of natural mango leather to pass on to vegan leather brands. The orange tone makes it an interesting fashion statement compared to the darker dyed faux leather options.
Pineapple leather is a little different but still uses a waste product from the natural pineapple harvest. It all began in the 1990s when a developer saw the amount of bio-waste created via the leaves from the pineapple industry in the Philippines. Pineapple leaves are tough and fibrous with great potential – but they are worthless when left to simply rot or burn. So, the decision was made to take these leaves, strip them down into these advantageous fibers, and then use those to create a new vegan material.
Today, Pinatex, a form of pineapple leather as it is known, has crept into the fashion industry as an alternative to leather. As with other materials, it is easy to shape and dye this new fabric to resemble leather and create interesting new bags. The patination of the material also allows for an interesting effect.
Grape Leather is perhaps better known as wine leather. This is a more interesting name because not only does it highlight the industry from which it originates, but it also sounds more opulent and high fashion than the humble grape.
The wine industry requires a lot of grapes to produce the liquid needed to create this prized alcoholic drink. This also means a lot of solid grape waste after all the juice has gone. As with the mangos and apples, there is no point in seeing all of this go to waste across a massive industry. As wine leather is so new, the process is still in the developmental stage, but it is said that producers can form 1 square meter of leather from 2.5kg of grape waste. This means that wine leather could become a major player if more companies adopt it in the future.
This is another new one that requires some time and further research before it becomes a more mainstream option. However, the idea of coffee leather is certainly intriguing. Coffee waste is a big issue when we have so many coffee producers handling beans and so many coffee shops with used coffee grounds. The latter has seen a revival in beauty products, with great results in eye creams. But there is now the option of using the film from coffee beans in leather production. This Silverskin comes from the roasting process, and there could be a decent supply globally.
At the moment, this is pretty niche, and you might not see it anywhere near a handbag or other vegan accessory for a while. Yet, Volkswagen Group Innovation is interested in using it for vehicle interiors rather than the more traditional real leather or animal leather.
Are Vegan Leather Products Truly 100% Vegan And 100% Environmentally Friendly?
These plant-based alternatives from bio waste, and cork products, are all appealing to those interested in vegan fashion. They are certainly a better option than the animal-based leathers and the plastics in PU and PVC materials. The only problem is that a base material from a plant source doesn’t guarantee a 100% vegan or biodegradable final product.
Every raw material faces a treatment process to strengthen and coat the leather and form these new bags, belts, and more. This can lead to the addition of plastics and chemicals that make it harder for the leather to break down naturally. Bags with inner linings are likely to contain plastic in some form. The more ethical brands will use recycled water bottles, but it’s still plastic. Then there are the brands using AppleSkin that combine it with PU leather.
Another issue for a vegan is that some companies will use beeswax while processing materials. This all depends on where you stand on this as an animal by-product. The same goes for any companies that use plant-based leather and wool fleece linings. This is why it is so important to read up on the materials and finer details of a brand if you are committed to 100% vegan options and the most environmental choices.
The Vegan Leather Industry Is Heading in the Right Direction
We can’t pretend that vegan leather is perfect when so many products include PU leather with all those chemicals and plastics. This is still preferable to dead animal skin but could be a lot better. Thankfully, the processes and materials in the plant-based leather industry are a lot better. We can now broaden definitions when determining what is vegan leather, and in turn broaden our options.
There are still flaws with some vegan leather options, and others need more research and development, but the range is encouraging. It won’t be long before we see a lot more bags, belts, and other accessories made from vegan leather from cork, mangoes, coffee, and maybe some other biowaste product yet to be discovered.
Find Your Best Fit Via Cruelty Free Handbags
If the idea of a plant-based vegan handbag sounds like a fun way to update your wardrobe, check out Cruelty Free Handbags (crueltyfreehandbags.com). Also, feel free to read our About Us page by clicking here. This is a great resource for learning about various vegan-friendly brands that embrace alternative leather. You can compare designs and find something you will love.
Would you like to read other interesting blog posts about vegan leather handbags? If this, is you, here is some you might be interested in reading: “The Best Vegan Leather Bags by Dasein Bags“, “Review of the Seven Greatest Vegan Purse Brands in 2022“, “The Best Vegan Crossbody Bags on Amazon.com“, and “The Ultimate Guide to Vegan Handbags.”
Do Vegan Leathers Only Come from Veggies?
The material from which vegan leather can be made is diverse. A vegan leather product can, for instance, be made of synthetic materials such as polyurethane and polyester. However, synthetic vegan leather may not be the best choice. Meanwhile, vegan leather is also available, which is made from natural plant-based materials.
How are Vegan Leathers Made?
The process of making vegan leather differs according to its type. Synthetic vegan leather, for instance, has a complex manufacturing process. Several materials can be used for this layer, including textiles, microfibers, cotton, nylon, or polyester, and on top of that, a synthetic layer is applied. This upper layer is usually composed of polyurethane to accurately emulate the shiny look and soft texture of regular animal leather, this step is necessary.
In the case of plant-based vegan leather, this type of leather is also called bio-waste vegan leather since it is fundamentally a recyclable material. Various elements derived from fruits, vegetables, and so on are used to make this leather. By finding organic sources in nature and giving them a second, positive purpose: vegan leather, bio-waste vegan leather is all about recycling waste.
Is Vegan Leather a Great Alternative?
The fact that vegan leather does not include any animal products makes it an incredible alternative. There are flaws in vegan leathers as well, but of course, that does not benefit the animals either. This is one of the many reasons why plant-based and bio-waste vegan leathers are the best alternatives to regular leathers.