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What The Heck Is Vegan Leather?

It’s increasingly popular for ethically made bags and shoes. But what the heck IS vegan leather?

By Jody McCutcheon

After hearing from my sister that the Falabella bag by Stella McCartney was constructed from a vegan leather substitute, and that Natalie Portman was starting her own vegan leather shoe line, I started to wonder: what the heck is meant by ‘vegan leather’ anyway?  And is it really more eco-friendly than ‘normal’ leather?

This leather substitute is used to make clothing, shoes, accessories, upholstery and more. It’s often indistinguishable from the real thing, and is much cheaper to manufacture than leather – even though designers, like McCartney, may well inflate the price.

While a few vegan leathers are plant-based, and although the amount of eco-friendly vegan materials produced is growing every year, the vast majority of faux leather has been around for decades, and is still made of scary materials like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane (PU) and textile-polymer composite microfibres.

In other words, generally speaking, ‘vegan leather’ reeks, literally and figuratively, of petroleum and/or chemicals.

What Is Vegan Leather, And How Does It Impact The Planet?

It gets worse. Both leather and vegan leather production emit chemicals harmful to environment and factory workers alike. Leather production’s preparatory stage, in which the raw animal hide is prepared for tanning, usually incorporates substances (like hydrogen sulfide and ammonia) which put factory workers at risk for skin, respiratory, ocular or nerve damage, or in cases of extreme overexposure, death.

The tanning stage prevents hides from rotting (as normal skin would normally do), often through the use of chromium, which then leaks into nearby soil and water at high enough levels to be carcinogenic and mutagenic. For every tonne of hide produced, twenty to eighty cubic metres of chemically toxic, pathogen-contaminated wastewater is unleashed on the environment. And Amazon rainforests are being depleted at a rate of one hectare every eighteen seconds by cattle ranchers looking to cash in on a bustling market for luxury leather items.

Despite these eco-horrors, many eco-warriors find vegan leather production even worse. For example, the manufacture and incineration of PVC-based synthetics produce one of the most toxic chemicals known to man: dioxins. Found in almost every single modern human’s body, dioxins promote developmental disturbances and increase cancer risks tenfold.

Since plastic-based synthetics don’t fully biodegrade, they produce micro-particles that are ingested by animals and thus enter the food chain at all levels: even Arctic polar bears have been found to have dioxins in their bloodstream.

When it does break down, vegan leather releases phthalates – initially added as a softening agent – which subsequently enter the food chain and the atmosphere. Phthalates cause breathing problems, breast cancers, hormonal disruptions and birth defects.

Microfiber, Mega Problem

So, what is vegan leather, according to the brands themselves? Many claim their products are made of ‘eco friendly’ PU (Polyurethane) microfibers, used because their ‘feel’ is similar to that of leather, and it can be imprinted with grains that mimic suede and natural skins. But make no mistake: there is no such thing as ‘eco friendly’ PU.

In the production of microfiber-based synthetics, textiles and polymers are often layered together and compressed several times through metal rollers, then submersed in a coagulation solution to solidify. This chemical process requires excessive levels of toxic substances like dimethylformamide, which has also been linked to cancer and birth defects, and acetic acid, high doses of which can damage skin and eyes.

According to an article in the Observer, a study conducted in 2011 showed that 60-85% of human-made material found on shorelines consisted of microfibers from textiles. The leading author of the study, Mark Anthony Browne, is currently working with researchers at the University of South Wales and University of Sydney in Australia to create libraries of the different types of micro fibers omitted into the environment from our clothing and how they adversely affect aquatic life. His research has attracted the attention of marine science researchers and government agencies in Australia, Europe and USA but has received no support from major clothing brands.

What the Heck is Vegan Leather

Any Alternatives?

Some manufacturers, including Valentino and the entire Gucci Group (now known as Kering) are very much aware of the issues surrounding leather production, and have now vowed to use only vegetable dyes, natural tanning processes, and slaughter only cattle raised on old farmland, as opposed to newly razed rain forests. (Valentino and Kering are also phasing out harmful PVC from their fashion goods–unlike the allegedly ‘eco friendly’ designer, Vivienne Westwood, who continues to use it in some of her bags and shoes.)

Other brands are using alternative leathers, including fish and eel skins, which usually thrown away as waste in the food production process.

If you’re looking for eco-friendly vegan leather accessories, there are few that beat the sustainability of those made from Piñatex, created from pineapple industry waste. Today, an increasing number of brands, including NAE Vegan, Bourgeois Boheme and even Hugo Boss are doing great things with this material. Alternatively, cork is another leather-like substance that looks fabulous in bags and wallets, such as those created by Corx and Matt and Nat.

‘Real’ leathers have been used by man for millennia, and when sourced from sustainable ranches and tanned and dyed naturally, these have the potential to be less damaging to the environment than most ‘vegan’ leathers, save those rare ones created from natural materials like cotton or cork. Of course, animal advocates will abhor the use of hide leather, due to the fact that animals die for us to use their skins, and that is quite right. But the hard reality is that most ‘vegan leather’ is far from an environmentally friendly alternative, and saying it is so is nothing but pure greenwashing.

Ultimately, even the most adamant vegans need to consider this fact: the pollution caused by ‘vegan leathers’ seems to hurt all other animals, including humans, in the long run.

Sources used for this article:

Images: 1 & 4 Stella McCartney 2&3 Vivienne Westwood for Melissa

Jody McCutcheon

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  • Reply
    Becky Piacente
    Jun 1, 2015 at 1:11 pm

    I grew up in the time(1960s) when although something wasn’t leather…. it wasn’t referred to as “vegan leather as it is today. Could you please find the word or name used as the word to describe non-leather items in the clothing industry? I am racking my brain to remember that word and have tried every possible Google question to do so. It was a common term which was the one used to describe something if it wasn’t made out of leather.


    • Reply
      Jun 1, 2015 at 6:09 pm

      Gosh Becky, wish I could help, but actually have no idea myself! Anyone…?

      • Reply
        Sep 16, 2018 at 1:04 pm

        Leatherette is the word you are desperately seeking, I believe.
        Yes: same rubbish. Except Old School Leatherette was even cruddier than today’s muck and would fall apart in minutes. Not good for shoes.

    • Reply
      Jun 4, 2015 at 8:44 pm


    • Reply
      Julie Roberts
      Aug 18, 2015 at 2:52 am

      Polyester, vinyl, melamine, polyurethane, polyvinyl…, there are hundreds of names for plastic and other(man made) petroleum based materials now, it’s enough to give you a migraine!

      • Reply
        Sep 17, 2015 at 7:29 pm

        In the 2000s it was called pleather – is this the same as “vegan leather”

        • Reply
          Sep 17, 2015 at 8:05 pm

          Pretty Much, Amy! 🙂

      • Reply
        Sep 27, 2015 at 3:47 am

        PLASTIC. It is all the same. To call something “Vegan Leather” is a misnomer, selling to those ignorant of the fact that it is not leather in anyway shape or form.

        It has been, and always will be a marketing scheme for those who named it (or use it), to I imply it is leather, or has any natural components.

        I heard the term first used by Stella McCartney and was astounded that anyone could leagally name it so, and the consumer gullible enough to not believe it was a hoax.

        Replacing leather with an extremely cheap quality product to make more money is so obvious it’s embarrassing. If the designer/label/manufacturer were to charge half the price, it would make it more agreeable.

        It is plain and simply false advertising. Call pleather a pleather, or name it a new miracle product fashionably vegan friendly, but don’t try and pull the wool over this seamstresses eyes.

        To me it is like polyester…you can’t name it Vegan cotton.

  • Reply
    Jan 25, 2015 at 9:25 pm

    You can recycle plastic, you can’t recycle “real leather” junk. If the technology is still harmful, we are to develop it. There is no need to kill anymore now. Without enough empathy, as a base of future civilisation, humans are able to find themselves in a Cyborgial Musem of Nostalgia, stuffed.

    • Reply
      Jan 25, 2015 at 11:19 pm

      Actually, the type of plastic used for vegan leather is not recyclable. Agree there is no need to kill new animals for leather–but old leather can indeed be cut up and recycled into new objects. For example, Rebecca Jane bags recycles old leather coats and even car seats into new handbags…

      • Reply
        Jan 31, 2015 at 7:07 pm

        While this article states that vegan leather reeks of petrolium it fails to notice that the leather industry also reeks of petrolium. Animals must be fed with grain, that grain is fertilized with petrolium based fertilizers. That follows up with animals having to be killed, implements used depend on electric (coal) and gas (natural gas or petrolium.) Then they must be transported, the skins treated (probably using machines dependent on petrolium.)

        The issue at hand is that it is easy to place a finger towards the sky and cover the sun but you cannot avoid the light around you. Saying “we cover humanely sourced furs/leathers,” have you ever watched how a fox must be skinned while alive to retain the quality of the fur? Is that humane? Or having a cow stunned only to paralysis and have it feel every second of being hung upside down to choke on its own blood? Is that humane? Denial is always a good resource, so are anger and refuting arguements based on might makes right. At the end of the day it doesn’t exist to those who don’t want to see but take a look at some videos such as eathlings, be an informed customer and at least have a say in the amounts of blood you’re willing to have pouring off your back at the expense of your conscience.

    • Reply
      Julie Roberts
      Aug 18, 2015 at 2:46 am

      You tell them Pawel!

  • Reply
    Feb 28, 2014 at 10:57 am

    Your use of the word ‘scary’ in front of the polymers you have listed show your lack of understanding of polymer science. Whilst there have been toxicological scares of both PVC and PUR, the toxicity is from the inhalation of the gas that is emitted once burnt as well as being in contact with food. It is of no concern when worn as clothing, unless of course you are eating food off it or planning on melting it. Most PVC used in vegan leather is made using recycled materials and whilst there are environmental issues with oil-based plastics as a whole you seem to be forgetting the environmental concerns we have with the cattle industry where ‘real’ leather comes from. Whilst it is better to get plant-based polymers for everything, your use of scare tactics to justify your love of animal flesh is ridiculous and inaccurate.

    • Reply
      Sep 7, 2014 at 11:05 am

      they fail to mention the resources needed to raise animals as well as the by products and waste from the animals themselves, the slaughter of animals and processes of creating leather. Ignorant article and very biased in my opinion

      • Reply
        Sep 7, 2014 at 2:46 pm

        DB, don’t forget that while yes, there are vast resources used to raise animals, these pale by comparison to the damage and pollution caused by the oil industry, which is the foundation of ‘vegan leather’.

        • Reply
          Oct 7, 2014 at 3:58 pm

          Animal agriculture is the number one contributor to climate change – it is the most destructive industry on the planet, period. Not to mention the ridiculously cruel treatment of animals. There is absolutely no reason to support the leather and fur industries.

          So you support companies that only use ‘carefully monitored sources where abuse does not happen’. Killing animals for their hides, feathers and furs is abuse.

          You don’t support companies that ‘use leather from unsustainable sources’. See my first sentence. There is nothing sustainable about animal agriculture.

    • Reply
      Nov 26, 2014 at 2:30 am

      Mary: Excellent points. Many of the comments on this thread reflect less than a full understanding of leather alternatives. Use of leather in clothing etc. has for too long been justified as merely making use of the residuals of the meat business. In fact the reverse is true; the real profit is in selling the hide, not the meat used for food. Stop wearing animal skins and the profit incentive for killing the animals will go away.

      • Reply
        Liya D
        Oct 6, 2015 at 7:10 pm

        Pat, I’m sorry to inform you but no, the real profit is not in selling the hide. Leather is still a byproduct of meat consumption. You can visit any slaughterhouse and ask for the price of the hides. You’d be surprised. Even in tanneries, the prices of leather are not expensive, even in well-stablished tanneries (like the suppliers for luxury brands, which by the way are based in Igualada, Spain).

        Let’s stop eating meat that comes from extensive farming, and you’ll see how not only the environment but also local economies benefit from it.

    • Reply
      Julie Roberts
      Aug 18, 2015 at 2:44 am

      Thank you to you as well Mary. That verbiage is why I looked into this article. I agree with every aspect of your statements. People do feel the need to lambast anything that might inconvenience them and what they have grown accustomed to. This same mindset is the bases for The American Civil war and pretty much every war that mankind partakes of. ” (we’ve) been doing something for a long time, hence that makes it right, better and well worth continuing”, Slavery has existed for a very very long time on this planet and does so to this very day in someway, shape or form, on many continents, In this authors opinion I guess it should continue, because it’s been going on for so long…,laughable logic, I just do not understand the “logic and so called reasoning” of most human beings and their self absorbed mindset, it’s all about what “we” want, what “we” are entitled to for simply being humans. Our arrogance as a species will definitely be our undoing in the end. We are NOT on this planet alone!

    • Reply
      Chemical engineering student
      Mar 3, 2016 at 9:50 am

      I agree , I found this article while searching for the manufacturing steps in vegan leather and honestly this article throws in the material names, assuming all chemicals are evil. Yes they use dangerous chemicals but in chemical plants they are managed carefully to prevent them causing damage to those working with them. By the time the product is sold, they’re clean and far from covered in those scary chemicals.
      E.g. the computer that you probably wrote the article, they use to etch those computer boards with acid. But we seem to all be fine, because it’s been cleaned.
      Also I would advise you to look at the adjustments being made to the PVC industry, look up vinyl2010

      • Reply
        Mar 3, 2016 at 11:57 am

        Respectfully disagree. There is NO safe way to deal with PVC, which is why it’s banned in many countries. It contains phthalates. Bisphenol A (BPA) and high levels of chlorine, all of which harm human health, not necessarily at the consumer stage, but during the manufacturing process. Contrary to what you claim (without any reference or links), chemical plants are not particularly careful when working with PVC at all: in fact, most of the toxic pollution produced by their production is spewed into the air, and is an important cause of asthma

  • Reply
    Oct 19, 2013 at 4:26 am

    It is a good point that man-made leather is not as eco-friendly as some think (doesn’t bio-degrade same way and does involve harmful chemicals in the production process).

    Some stores selling real leather products (shoes, bags, furniture) say they use the leather that is a by-product of meat industry. I can see how if we are not vegetarian as a specie – we might as well use the skin of the animals who are being killed for food anyway.

    But what many people don’t consider and not aware of is that many of those meat farms really abuse animals their entire lives. If you ever seen an average meat farm where cows stand back-to-back without ever having a chance to lay down or even turn around – it would break your heart.

    And sadly, a leather is often sourced from third-world countries, where there is just no concept of animal rights and anything goes.

    So if you chose to use leather – just do some research as far as where did the animal skin came from and how the animal was treated there.

    Wholefoods, for example, has entire program that monitors human treatment of farm-animals, where top-grade farms have animals roaming around green fields their entire lives as oppose to be caged, beaten and abused. So there must be some decent sources of leather out there. Unfortunately it has proven hard to find.

    But the bottom is – as long as we support business practicing or being complacent with animal cruelty – we are being part of that and it is our money that fund further animal abuse.

    P.S. While not on entirely same subject, but it is related – if you like real fur, you should know that the animals on fur farms are kept in very small cages their entire lives, beaten and subject to gene mutations to produce better furs (red fox turning pure white to sell as arctic fox). These genetic mutations cause animals cancers.

    But worst of all – animals are often skinned BEFORE they are even fully dead. So just remember that. Every time you buy real fur – you keep those sadistic people in business and animals in the worst nightmare imaginable.

    • Reply
      Oct 19, 2013 at 1:09 pm

      Hi Maria

      Your points are all valid and very interesting. At Eluxe, we agree that animal welfare must be of paramount importance, and we endeavour to only cover those companies whose policies are to use leathers and furs from carefully monitored sources where abuse does not happen. Additionally, we will not cover brands that use leather from cattle raised on former rain forest land in the Amazon.

      Some luxury companies are strict about this. For example, Valentino, all the companies in the Kering group, including Gucci, St Laurent and Alexander McQueen, but also smaller brands like Husna sandals. Other leather brands we cover include Rebecca-Jane, which uses only upcycled leathers.

      If you ever see a brand written up in Eluxe who is using leather from unsustainable sources, please let us know asap. We appreciate your feedback!!

    • Reply
      Jan 22, 2014 at 8:02 am

      Faux leather are made in china, wich is a country with zero human rights (Tibet issue), no workers rights (slaves conditions and child labour) and no enviroment protection laws. I don’t think the faux leather is more eco firendly than the real leather, china is a cancer in this world, if you buy faux leather that is made in china, you are contaminated the world!.

      • Reply
        Mike V
        Dec 17, 2014 at 11:44 pm

        huaquer, do you know how toxic chromium VI is? this stuff causes cancer. leather workers are and will be contaminated with this substance. Think twice before you say working in leather industry is more healthy than to work at a PVC manufacturer. secondly animal farming is number one reason for the destruction of the rain forest and climate change.

        • Reply
          Feb 1, 2015 at 11:43 am

          Hi Mike,
          I completely agree with your point that animal farming is one of the main reason behind destruction of ain forest.
          I personally believe that man made leather is better option then using Animal skin just for our pleasure only. No reason can justify using animal skin is fair compare to man made leather. You can use sports shoe also and some canvas shoe also.
          Thanking you,

        • Reply
          Liya D
          Oct 6, 2015 at 6:58 pm

          Mike V,

          Hevaxalent chromium (Cr (VI)) is not used to tan leather. It’s the result of the oxidation of Cr III. This oxidation occurs when the PH of the vat is not under strict control (which I believe it to be over 3.2, but I may be wrong).

          The problem with Cr VI (as you said, a very toxic substance), is that it’s present in leather products made with hides that have been tanned in tanneries that lack the necessary waste treatment systems (which results in wastewater high in chromium, lead and arsenic that ends up in landfills).

          In the EU tanneries comply with environmental regulations and health and safety rules. Thus, leather products made with traceable and EU made hides do not contain salt of dichromate acid, nor Cr VI.

          Now, having said that doesn’t mean I don’t agree with you when you say that animal farming (which I guess you are referring to “extensive farming”) is one of the major causes of the destruction of our environment. I would also add oil palm trees, coffee plants, soybean, even eucalyptus trees… Absolutely everything mankind produces has a negative effect on the environment. Perhaps one possible solution is to reduce consumption, or at least do it responsibly.

          In any case, this “vegan leather” trend is so misleading that the use of the term should be highly regulated. “Vegan” doesn’t mean “environmentally friendly” and consumers should be aware of that.

    • Reply
      Mar 25, 2015 at 5:29 pm

      The purchasing of Vegan leather is not just about the eco impact, but about the cruelty that goes hand in hand with the leather industry. I you can watch the slaughter & treatment of the animals that are used for leather, then maybe you are okay with wearing leather products.

      I have worked in high end retail and no longer can condone the designers charging massive amounts for their products without concern to ethics and compassion. The designers could truly set a new industry standard if they desired , by branding their products as ethical, but that would require more work than they care to do.

      I do believe that the world is at a point that we need to be accountable for the other living beings in this world and know that we are doing everything in our power to change things for the better in this world. By buying Vegan leather , I will feel so much better about my choice to be fashionable , but yet care about other living creatures at the same time.

      • Reply
        Julie Roberts
        Aug 18, 2015 at 2:24 am

        Thank you! Both methods produce pollutants, one produces pollutants and enslaves, tortures and cruelly kills other sentient beings in the process. I’ll take the cruelty free pollution any day of the week! I do all that I can to live by the “Golden Rule”, “Do unto OTHERS as you would have OTHERS do unto you”, “OTHERS” doesn’t specify species so I feel that common sense and karma dictate that I treat everything “OTHER” than myself, as I would want to be treated. Thank you again for your speaking out on behalf of animals.

      • Reply
        Nov 23, 2018 at 7:50 am

        THANK YOU! Omg I couldn’t even finish this article because the main thing about VEGAN leather is to eliminate the cruelty the animals endure. How do you justify killing a living breathing being for something to wear and throw away when it gets “old”.

  • Reply
    Dominique Drakefird
    Sep 16, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    Hello, my name is Dominique Drakeford- an eco fashion publicist in NY and I am interested in submitting an article called “Dumpster and Christian Dior- Rubbish Scented Dress”.

    I would love to know how I can go about getting my article published.

    Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you.


    Dominique Drakeford

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