Updated: Apr 21, 2020
So, full disclosure; I eat meat and I wear leather. I worked hard to keep this unbiased and I was mostly just interested in seeing if “vegan leather” was a marketing ploy or a real and responsible alternative. Spoiler alert: it is both!
Enjoy this read and, as always, click the numbers in square brackets to check out all the references!
A little bit of info: polyurethane is used for everything from jackets to shoes by many companies. Brands like Stella McCartney and Matt and Nat use this kind of faux leather in their products.
- PU can be made into unlimited colours, textures, and sheens. The chemistry behind polyurethane production is pretty complicated but basically you react one molecule (a polyol) with another (diisocyanate) in the presence of a catalyst, bond it to some type of fibre[i] and voila! Because there are so many different polyols and diisocyanates you have endless possibilities
- it can be at least partially made using vegetable oils (instead of petroleum oils) which is a renewable resource[ii] (Stella McCartney for example[iii])
-there is a lot of research being done in recycling PUs and creating bio-based PUs. They’re not used in mass production yet but is certainly on the right track[iv]
-does not have very long term wear because the polyurethane coating will start to come away from the fibre beneath it[v] after just a few years. This also makes it more likely to rip and it’s nearly impossible to mend
-it is not environmentally friendly for a few reasons. First it is at least partially produced from fossil fuels (I think we are all clear on fossil fuel issues). Second, the adhesives[vi] used are, at best, about 50% unsustainable petroleum based and at worst 100%. They also release a number of toxic by-products during production[vii]. Third, once the garment or accessory is thrown away it just goes to the landfill and does not break down and can’t be recycled[viii].
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
A little bit of info: polyvinyl chloride used to be a lot more popular (90s grunge pleather ring any bells?) but has fallen out of favour because it is worse for the environment. That said, companies like Matt and Nat still use it for certain parts of their products (I suspect because it is less expensive).
-PVC is UV stable, a.k.a. fades very little in the sun because it is treated with UV stabilizers[ix]
-it is less expensive for manufacturers than PU options, this is because the additives used to make the final product often cost less than PU additives [x]
-basically the same as polyurethane, does not have long term wear because it comes apart quite fast, plus it does not look very good as it ages
-by-products of its production are toxic, both to the environment and to the people living near the exhaust from the factories[xi]
A little bit of info: cork has been used to make wedges and heels of shoes by a lot of companies for many years (from Gucci to Zara and everyone in between). If you stroll the streets of Lisbon you’ll find endless accessories made with cork, using the same methods that have been used there for 100s of years.
Recently, companies around the world have been using it as the vegan leather movement grows stronger. From left to right these products are from Montado, Queork, and Svala.
- cork is great for day to day use because it is stain resistant and easy to clean, it is also really light weight[xiv]
-it is very environmentally friendly, a number of studies show that although the cork must be extracted from the trees (energy use has been estimated at 0.2kg of emitted CO2 per kg of extracted cork) the overall balance is still heavily in favour of cork extraction. Each kg of cork produced has a negative carbon footprint[xv]. This means that extracting it actually cleans more air than not extracting it[xvi] and just leaving the trees alone.
- it doesn't mimic leather, it looks like cork. The texture is always very similar even if dyes are added. It is a lovely material but if you want a leather look this won't be your first choice.
-it is a game of patience to get the raw materials to make products. Cork oak trees take 25 years to mature, and then a first harvest must be done before the usable second harvest. Harvests after that take place about every 13-14 years[xvii].
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