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What Is Vegan Leather made of? The Ultimate Guide

Vegan leather is a synthetic material that mimics the look and feel of animal skin. They make it from PU (polyurethane) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride), also known as vinyl, pleather, or faux leather.

But, thankfully, more sustainable materials are now popping up in the industry, including pineapple leaves and mushrooms (more on that later!), which makes a better quality vegan leather alternative.

So, let’s start with PVC and the process that goes into making consumable products, including auto parts, home furnishings, children’s toys, and a ton of other products.

Several additives make PVC reach the desired end product, all of which are no good for the planet!

Chlorine-based chemicals, plasticizers to make the material softer, and stabilizers are all part of the process. Because it is relatively inexpensive and used widely.

Let’s look at the other synthetic-based leather; PU.

Is PU better than PVC?

In the production of PU leather, there’s less hazardous waste produced and, it has a low carbon footprint.

No chemicals are used that might get into the environment when they are thrown away.

It is the preferred choice for fashion designers since it is of much better quality, although more expensive.

So, is PU a better vegan leather option?  We know that there is no place for plastic items in our environment, so we need to make a choice. We can choose polyurethane (PU) or plant-based plastics. PU is better for now.

How do you know if PU leather is vegan?

Be careful with PU leather because some companies may use tanning in PU production, using a real leather coating over the faux leather.

If you get Bycast or Bi-cast leather stated on the label, this means we’re not dealing with vegan leather, and instead there is a mixture of PU and real leather.

They also used glue in the manufacturing process, which can be synthetic, milk-based, or bone-based.  This one might be tricky to find out because it might not be too apparent.

Always check the labeling for 100% synthetic or vegan, but always use the option to contact the brand or manufacturer to ask these questions.

Is PVC bad for you?

It is the worst kind of faux leather for the plastic content.

Because the manufacturing process takes more non-renewable resources for its production than any other plastics. Oil, natural gas and limestone are used all the time. They still have lead and other harmful materials.

It destroys the ozone layer by releasing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the atmosphere that depletes protective ozone gas and leads to global warming.

During the production process, carcinogenic byproducts produced dioxins which are toxic to humans and animals.

Dioxins remain in the environment long after manufacturing.

When it ends up in a landfill, it does not decompose like real leather and can release dangerous chemicals into the water and soil.

Greenpeace has labeled PVC as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic”.

The truth about the real leather industry.

They kill annually millions of animals for their hides. Not only cows but just about every exotic and endangered animal you can think of, including;

Pigs.

Sheep

Kangaroo.

Snake.

Alligator/Crocodile

Horses.

Aside from the serious ethical reasons killing animals for their skin is wrong, the whole leather tanning operation is dangerous, and the chemicals used cause severe health problems for both workers and neighboring residents.

Turning raw leather into a finished product is so harmful it can take days to extract the chrome from factory workers.

Most leather tanning occurs in developing countries, where there are no proper environmental regulations for waste disposal or proper safety measures in place.

They used several methods when tanning leather, and unfortunately, within the fashion industry, the most popular is chrome tanning.

Many leather brands use a cheaper, mass-produced, and most toxic form of tanning, which is quicker than the traditional vegetable tanning process.

How does leather production harm the environment?

Daily, millions of gallons of tanning chemicals seep into rivers and oceans across the globe, threatening water supplies, and devastating local wildlife.

The other damaging chemicals used are formaldehyde, coal tar derivatives, and sulfuric acid. 

Why is chrome so damaging?  

Chrome is a highly toxic chemical that can cause skin and respiratory irritation, allergies, and asthma.

Around 80% of all the leather in the world is tanned with chrome. Chrome also can cause cancer.

They soak the hides in a mixture of liquids to remove the hair and soften it, which is usually a combination of chemicals like sodium sulfide, lime, and other chemicals.

Using animal skins for fashion and footwear has contributed to destroying a major swath of forest in Brazil called The Amazon Rain Forest, also known as “the world’s lungs.”

A report from PETA states ‘a chrome-tanning facility wastes nearly 15,000 gallons of water and produces up to 2,200 pounds of solid waste’ (e.g., hair, flesh, and trimmings) for every ton of hides that it processes”.

Is leather a by-product of the meat industry?  

Some people might argue that since they are going to slaughter the animal for the meat anyway, why not use the skin?

Our view here at PureVegan Lifestyle is leather is a co-product. When people buy real leather, they are contributing to the demand for factory farming and slaughterhouses.

So what happens when we strip away these negative aspects of real leather? We end up with something better: vegan leather!

How to care for vegan leather.

If you want to clean your vegan leather, the best way is with a damp cloth.

Any strong cleaning products can harm the material, so if there are stains or marks on it, use these sparingly and with care.

And remember: never machine wash!

We should store this out of direct sunlight, because the sun can cause color fading and wrinkles. This is permanent damage that cannot be reversed by any amount of conditioning treatments.

Use no powerful cleaning agents, including bleach or detergent.

Is vegan leather more sustainable?

With sustainability, we consider the sourcing practices and transparency of fabric and how durable it is.

We already know that real leather is unsustainable and hugely impacts the planet. We should store this out of direct sunlight, because the sun can cause color fading and wrinkles.

Some vegans/non-vegans would never wear vegan leather, as they don’t consider it an ethical choice because of its plastic content.

Plant-based leather has been growing in popularity lately thanks to its insufficient plastic and environmentally friendly qualities. So let’s look at these 7 innovative quality options starting with Cork leather!

Vegan leather made from cork.

Here’s why we love cork leather, it’s 100% biodegradable, natural, and environmentally friendly.

They produce it mainly in Portugal from the oak tree, also called Quercus Suber.

From an age of 25 years, when the tree has a circumference of about 60 cm, they remove the bark for the first time.

A cork tree needs several years to recreate the bark. Therefore, after every 9 harvests, they repeat the harvesting.

They harvest by cutting a tree with a sharpened ax at an angle (usually between 45 and 90 degrees), followed by vertical cuts to remove the bark, taking great care not to damage the tree.

How is cork leather made?

They harvest Fibers from trees, then left to dry for 6 months, before being taken to a processing plant.

Once there, it gets cooked and steamed to make the fabric even more elastic.

Heat and pressure apply to press it into blocks that are later cut into thin slices that are then turned into brilliant vegan leather accessories, like wallets, shoes, clothes, and furniture.

How durable is cork fabric? Unlike real leather, it is water-repellent, stain-resistant, and scratch-proof.

Cork ages without deteriorating, mainly because of its moisture resistance, unlike leather.

We can trace this to the waxy substance in each cell wall that keeps the liquids out.

Vegan leather made from mushrooms.

They make mushroom leather from mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus.

Mycelium is the network of filaments that form the underground thread-like structure of fungi.

Mycelium grows in the ground, as tiny white threads, forming vast networks under the forest floor.

Apart from growing naturally, they cultivate mycelium in almost any type of agricultural waste, from sawdust to pistachio shells.

In nature, mycelium already does many things that benefit the environment.

How is mushroom leather made? 

Mushroom leather is the newest craze sustainably.

It’s made from mycelial cells that are grown indoors and fed sawdust with organic material while controlling humidity and temperature to create a durable yet breathable fabric.

They grow mycelium for about three weeks, harvest, and then composted.

The remaining material that’s leftover gets processed and dyed to become used for shoes, handbags, wallets, phone cases, as well as various other products.

A few innovative companies are entering the mushroom leather space. Bolt Threads being one, with their Mylo leather line.

Is Mylo leather 100% biodegradable? Whilst it is not petroleum-derived, it is not currently plastic-free. They are striving to improve this though.

Is mushroom leather durable?

Mushroom leather gets its durability from tiny fibers called hyphae. These fibers make the leather strong, flexible and durable, just like traditional leather. In fact, if it weren’t for the mushroom smell, there’s a strong resemblance to the real thing!

There’s a lifespan on most materials, and you might get 10 years of usage.

Vegan leather made from cactus.

Who would have imagined an alternative to animal leather could ever come from CACTUS?!

Founded in 2019 in Zacatecas, Mexico. Desserto developed a vegan leather made with nopal (a cactus, also known as prickly pear).

Adrian and Marte (founders) recognized the seriousness of what some synthetic leathers were doing to the environment and created a cactus-based material for the furniture, automotive, and fashion industries.

Desserto is a Peta-approved product, highly sustainable since the production takes place in a natural environment with no need for fertilizers or pesticides.
The aim is to offer cruelty-free, sustainable alternatives without toxic chemicals, phthalates, and PVC.

How is cactus leather made?

The process for cactus leather involves using either the new young leaves or the mature leaves of the plant. Desserto, here, uses leaves from the young leaves of the prickly pear cactus.

They harvest these leaves from organically grown cactus plants, cleaned, mashed, and left in the sun to dry for three days before being processed.

Then with the company’s patented formula., they then process the raw material.

Vegan leather made of pineapple

Leather made from pineapple leaves

Piñatex® is a vegan leather alternative made from pineapple leaves and a breakthrough in a sustainable fashion. Founded by Dr. Carmen Hijosa in the Philippines in the 1990s.

Dr. Hijosa spent many years working in the leather industry, and after having the first-hand experience in identifying the environmental destruction real leather was creating, wanted to create an environmentally friendly product with no harmful chemicals or tanning processes.

Ananas Anam Ltd. is the company behind Piñatex® and currently exports to over 30 countries.

Fashion brands including Hugo Boss and Stella McCartney are using this material to make shoes, bags, jackets, and beyond.

Is Pinatex Sustainable?

They regard Pinatex in the industry as a new generation of sustainable leather.

Consider these facts; there are approximately 13 million tonnes of waste from global pineapple agriculture yearly, typically discarded or burned.

By creating value to this waste, Ananas Anam has created an additional source of income for farming communities that otherwise rely on a seasonal harvest.

In addition, after they have stripped the fiber from the leaf, they can keep the biomass to use as a natural fertilizer or bio-fuel, offering a further environmental prospect.

But, is Pinatex biodegradable? Though pineapple fibers are 100% biodegradable, the coating typically comprises a petroleum-based resin that’s not fully biodegradable – just yet!

 

How is Pinatex leather made?   

Starting with fibers derived from pineapple leaves, sourced from a plantation in the Philippines, they would just burn them or leave them to rot.

These fibers are then mixed with poly-lactic acid (PLA), a bioplasmic derived from corn, before being formed into a non-woven mesh, finished, and coated to create a flexible yet durable material.

They then pressed the fibrous inner core of the leaf with heat and pressure into sheets that they then cut and crafted like real leather.

Vegan leather made from wine.

An Italian tech company called Vegea has brilliantly developed using grape marc (skin and stalk) to produce soft, leather that can replace animal-based products.

They create wine leather from the leftover materials of wine production in Italy.

So, let’s look at some quick statistics to understand just how much leftover materials we are talking about;

They produce 26 billion liters of wine worldwide yearly, and Italy is the top leader with 18% of the world’s production.

10 liters of waste are produced during production,  they can produce from which 1 square meter of wine leather

That works out to be around 2.6 billion square meters of wine leather yearly, simply by using the “waste”. Pretty amazing.

They process the waste products through a technology developed by Vegea and form the core basis for this new material.

A company dedicated to eco-friendly alternatives for synthetic leather, this organization is paving the way for sustainability in a meaningful way.

So what’s next for this innovative company?  2022 is their projected year to speed up production.

How is wine leather made?

Making bio-leather begins with the dried grape marc, recycled from residues of Italian wine.

The bio-oil seed that has gone through a patented process is made into Bio-oil fiber. It is then combined with other fibers to make materials that are like animal leather.

So what’s next for this innovative company?  2022 is their projected year to speed up production, so stay tuned!

Vegan leather made from apple skin.

Apple skins are making an awesome new type of leather!

Originating from Northern Italy, apple skin leather is a bio-based material made from leftover apple pomace and peel. The final product is 100 percent biodegradable.

The fabric is first created by grinding the fruit waste into powder.

How is Apple skin leather made?

The process starts by harvesting the apple skins and leaving them to dry to preserve their natural characteristics.

The apple cores and skins, which are thrown out by the food industry, are then made into a puree.

The puree is spread on a solid sheet and dried until most of the moisture has been removed. This makes leather that is then coated with Polyurethane to make it vegan.

Final Thoughts

The cruelty and the environmental impact of using animal skin far outweigh the environmental benefits of using vegan leather.

So, the good news is more brands are now using recycled materials to reduce waste and minimize the environmental impact.

The fashion industry has some brilliant designers today that are producing quality eco-friendly vegan leather wear using sustainable and ethical material.

Next time you are in the market for a pair of vegan leather shoes or bags, always be sure to check the labeling for any hint of traditional leather.

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