Is Synthetic Leather Vegan?


Veganism doesn’t just end with what you eat; it also extends to every other aspect of consumption, including clothing and upholstery materials. Some of today’s textiles are a product of animal cruelty.

The most common one is leather, which is used to make shoes, clothing, accessories, furnishings, and more. Once you realise that wearing these animal-based clothing is literary at the expense of an animal’s life, it’s hard to see it as anything besides cruel. The good news is there are just as many vegan-friendly alternatives. One new textile material in the fashion industry that is getting so much buzz is synthetic leather. But before we get into the specifics of what this material is all about, we need to answer one important question that probably made you click on this article.

Is synthetic leather vegan? Yes, it is. Synthetic leather is basically fake ‘leather’. It is not derived from animals but from materials such as paper, polyurethane, cork, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and waxed or glazed cotton, just to name a few. Synthetic leather is also known as vegan leather, faux leather, or Pleather.

Synthetic leather was introduced as a cheaper version of real leather but later on, it started serving as ‘leather’ for vegans. This became a perfect material for marketing experts, especially given the surging number of vegans in the world. But while vegans might never consider wearing leather, choosing an alternative is more complicated than you think. Synthetic leather has some impact on the environment. Remember veganism is not only about preventing animal cruelty but also leading a healthy and environmentally-friendly lifestyle. There’s also the challenge of balancing manufacturing practices, quality, and cost. People become vegans for different reasons, so read through to find out whether synthetic leather is suitable for your vegan beliefs.

How is Synthetic Leather Made?

The first step to determining whether synthetic leather can be part of your life is to know what it’s made of. Well, much like regular leather is made from different animals’ skin, the synthetic leather is also made from a variety of non-animal materials. This includes:

Plastic Materials

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is the most commonly used material in synthetic leather. It is a plastic material produced through polymerization; a process where the molecules of vinyl chloride monomers are combined. Since it is a rigid plastic, it is treated with phthalates to make it pliable.

Polyurethane

Polyurethane is a micro-fibre based material used in liquid form to paint fabric. This gives the fabric a leather-like look and feel. The process of turning it into a liquid requires various chemical solvents that can be harmful to the environment and humans.

Natural Materials

Although PVC and polyurethane materials are the most commonly used materials in synthetic leather, there are natural options as well. These are both cruelty-free and eco-friendly. Cork is the most common natural material for making synthetic leather, but pineapple leaves, kelp, and waxed cotton are also available. Natural synthetic leather is produced by companies that support veganism and environmental sustainability. Below is an in-depth look at these materials:

Paper

Surprising, right? It is not the loose-leaf paper used in school though, but more of the hard type used in cardboard boxes. An example of paper synthetic leather is washi. It is obtained from the back of a tree named Kozo. In case you are worried about deforestation, there is no need to since the Kozo tree is a sustainable fast-growing relative of the mulberry.

Cork

Cork is very familiar in the fashion industry, especially in wedged shoes. In comparison to other synthetic leather materials, it is considered the most eco-friendly. Cork is totally natural, waterproof, has an organic texture, and is easy to recycle.

Recycled rubber

I have seen so many backpacks made from recycled rubber and they have a leathery texture. Recycled rubber looks appealing and is quite durable.

Tree bark leather

Tree bark leather is obtained from sustainable timber and it is strong and durable. Every piece made from tree bark leather is unique due to different variations of its natural grains. The trees where this fabric is sourced from are fast-growing, therefore no deforestation. Unlike most textile materials, the chemicals used in tree bark leather to make it flexible and durable are non-toxic.

Waxed cotton

Organic waxed cotton has been in use for decades as an alternative to leather jeans and bags. It is waterproof, easily washable, and pliable.

Coolstone leather

It is a synthetic leather material produced from thin sewable slices of slate stone. Coolstone is totally vegan as it is not derived from animals. The fabric has the feel of paper and leather with a smooth matte grey finish.

Pinatex and apple fibres

Apple cores, banana, and orange peels are recycled and used to make items such as handbags. This already sounds awesome, right? Well, that’s not all! The wasted part of the pineapple is used to make pinatex; a fabric that feels a lot like cowhide leather.

These are just a few of the natural materials that can be used to make synthetic leather but one thing is for sure, they are all plant-based. Even the process of changing the raw materials to synthetic leather doesn’t make use of any animal-based products or by-products.

Is Synthetic Leather Safe For The Environment?

Despite being animal cruelty-free, most synthetic leather is not eco-friendly. Plastics such as PVC have the worst effect on the environment. It releases dioxins when burnt, a compound that is very dangerous in confined spaces. The phthalates used to make the plastic malleable can be extremely toxic.

Organic materials used as synthetic leather such as cork, kelp, fruit peels, tree barks, and paper also require certain chemicals to make them durable. Otherwise, they would decompose so fast. Other chemicals are also added to the fibres as adhesives. Plant-based adhesives are produced using fossils fuels, which also cause a negative impact to the environment. That being said, it’s worth noting that plant-based leather is less destructive in comparison to tanning real leather and burning PVC.

It goes without saying that synthetic leather is 100% vegan in the basic sense that it doesn’t contribute to the killing of animals for human consumption. But as a vegan, you also need to be environmentally conscious. While most eco-friendly products are animal friendly, the vice versa is untrue. Plastics, to be specific, are non-biodegradable and leave an intensive carbon-footprint. So, if you went vegan for environmental purposes, you may have to stay away from any type of leather and wear other fabrics like cotton.

What Else Should You Watch Out For In Synthetic Leather?

Bi-cast leather

Bicast leather is not vegan at all. It is real leather with a top coating of PU. This is a grave mistake that you can make as a vegan. Since synthetic leather is made specifically resembling actual leather, it can be difficult to tear the two apart. Don’t worry, although the two look very much alike, they have a few differences that will come out in the next points.

  • Synthetic leather is fairly cheaper compared to real leather
  • Actual leather has a distinct smell, so try smelling a few and it will become obvious. Synthetic leather smells like plastics and chemicals.
  • Synthetic leather has a very symmetrical pattern and pores unlike real leather since skins are very different
  • Unlike real leather, synthetic leather does not absorb water
  • Synthetic leather has a wider variety of colours, thickness, and textures while traditional leather maintains its authenticity.

Although the above features will help you tell the difference between the two, the easiest way is to check the cloth tag. It is also very important to take note of the vegan-status and sustainability of clothing brands. Some clothes and industries are strictly vegan-friendly. Nowadays, vegan or synthetic leather products are clearly labelled and widely advertised, making life easier for vegans.

What Is The Verdict For Vegans?

As I had mentioned earlier, people become vegans for different reasons. Most lead a vegan lifestyle based only on the reason they became vegans while others consume only what is cruelty-free, healthy, and environment-friendly.

Synthetic leather is considered vegan as it’s not derived from animals but its production does release toxic chemicals that are harmful to both humans and animals. It might, therefore, seem hypocritical to save an animal’s life by avoiding real leather only to destroy the ecosystems that sustains them. The good news is not all types of synthetic leather are that bad. Besides plastic leather, organic synthetic leather is not as harmful to the environment.

Wearing real leather is one of the cruellest things to do. Imagine losing millions of animals just to sustain the rapidly-growing leather industry. In fact, when you wear real leather, you become a walking advertisement for that object. Therefore, when someone else desires it, you are creating a demand for more animals to be killed.

Luckily, people can now satisfy their love for leather without hurting animals or the planet. Even though it has a few downsides, synthetic leather is the bona fide vegan leather.

Robert Van De Ville

Robert Van De Ville is a registered nutritionist, he earned his degree in nutrition from California State University. Now based in London UK. An author of the upcoming book, researcher and dedicated vegan activist.

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