In a world increasingly concerned with environmental issues, the over $414 billion leather goods industry is seeking more environmentally friendly alternatives. People have had a love affair with leather for centuries and products manufactured with leather have always been associated with the luxurious lifestyle of the rich.
Imitation leather also called faux leather has only been around since the 19th century, yet has only recently threatened to take over a significant share of the leather goods market. Alternatives to animal hide leather are many and the idea that 100% genuine leather is the best possible material for traditionally leather products like shoes, handbags, belts, furniture, etc. is seriously challenged in the 21st century.
What exactly is faux leather, how is it manufactured, and how does it hold up when compared to animal hides? Keep reading to learn more as we dive deep into the world of faux leather.
What Is Faux Leather?
Artificial leather goes by many names and made from a wide range of materials. Faux leather is a type of artificial leather made from synthetic materials such as thermoplastic polymers and petroleum-based materials. Some other common names and types of faux leather include:
- Synthetic leather
- PU leather
Faux leather is a substitute for genuine leather (made from animal skin) in the manufacturing of upholstery, clothing, footwear, handbags, and more products where a leather-like look and feel is desirable. Faux leather is one type of vegan leather but not all vegan leathers are faux leathers.
We will be taking a close look at many various types of faux and vegan leathers in this ultimate guide. But first, why do people like leather products so much? Are there real-world reasons for buying leather goods beyond the fact they are fashionable?
Why Do People Love Leather?
The history of leather is teeming with interesting facts and reasons why people are drawn to it. When considering leather alternatives, it is pertinent to first understand why real leather (wether it is genuine leather, top grain leather or full grain leather) is so popular. The physical properties of animal hide provide many advantages over other materials ranging from durability to aesthetic appeal.
Let's take a brief look at these advantages to understand better the considerable challenge of replacing genuine leather with faux leather.
Warm Clothing and Shelter
The love affair with leather dates back to ancient times but, back then, it had little to do with fashion and more to do with survival. Wearing the hides and furs of animals are well known to be highly effective in keeping the body warm. The fact that the skin is natures highly effective approach to insulting the body, makes the first case that it would work well as an extra layer of protection from the elements.
Whether you're climbing the tallest peaks or enjoying a sandy beach, proper shelter is a basic need of life. Tents, one of the earliest known forms of shelter, utilize animal leather. Wrapping the frame of a tent with animal hides provides protection from the cold, wind, rain, and snow and can provide more than amble protection and comfort.
The first tents were constructed from the massive bones and hides of the woolly mammoths during the last ice age. The Native Americans used buffalo hides to wrap tepees as temporary shelters in support of their nomadic lifestyles for hundreds of years.
Incidentally, thousands of the American buffalo (Bison) were shot and skinned and their bodies left to rote in the sun during the 1800s in North America. This practice enraged the Great Plains Native American Tribes that survived by hunting the animal but would never waste any part of the sacred kill.
Although most of us are unlikely to use leather to build our home, to replace leather for warm and durable clothing, imitation leather must also be as good or a better insulator than genuine leather.
Strength Durability and Longevity
Mother nature built animal skins to be tough and long-lasting. A well-sewn pair of leather shoes or boots can easily last a lifetime if properly treated. If you don't believe it, ask the cobbler (shoe repair tradesman), if you can find one. Taking leather shoes and boots to the cobbler was common practice not long ago because the leather of the shoes would always outlast the stitching and need repairing.
The tanning and producing leather for clothing is an ancient art that is well documented in archaeology. Thousands of tombs with skeletons wearing leather garments, some 3,000 years old, excavated in china is a strong testimonial to just how long leather can last.
Clothing is not the only product that leather is used because of its durability. Leather is used for anything that has to withstand the abuse of daily use. Some common examples are:
- Furniture and automobile seats
- Bags and backpacks
- Book and notebook bindings
- Sports balls and equipment
If you are a backpacker or camper you realize how important it is to know what to take with you on your trip. A strong and durable backpack is a must to carry everything you need to survive in style on the trail.
Although most tanned leathers are strong and last a long time, some are more durable than others. Buffalo and horse leathers are well known for their strength. Perhaps the strongest leather is Kangaroo which is famous for soccer footwear and boxing speed bags.
In order to replace these leathers, synthetic leather materials must be as strong and durable as genuine leather yet flexible. This poses a significant challenge for leather alternatives, but as we will get to later, some alternatives are just as strong or stronger than genuine leather.
Fashion Style and Status Symbol
There is no doubt that leather has long been associated with the well to do. When one takes a look at the offerings from popular fashion houses known for their elite customer base and high price tags, you are sure to find leather. Some of the most well-known luxury leather brands are:
Those that seek leather as a status symbol are willing to spend thousands if not tens of thousands on leather handbags, jackets, and boots with designer labels. To get an idea of how much fashion can cost, take a look at the 10 most expensive handbags in 2020. With only a few exceptions, most of these ridiculously priced handbags are made with exotic leathers and jewels of course.
The good news for leather alternatives is that 100% genuine leather is not held in the same regard as it used to be. With an increased awareness of the environmental effects and cruelty of animals associated with animal-based products, more and more people are frowning on genuine leather. Even leather brand fashion houses are jumping on the bandwagon and offering more leather alternatives, although you will still pay a pretty penny for the label.
The Case for Leather Alternatives
It seems that humanity is unwilling to give up leather anytime soon. If any material dares to challenge the supremacy that leather has as a material for high-quality luxury goods, that material is going to have its work cut out for it. It will have to be everything leather is and more. Next, we look at some of the reasons why a substitute to leather may be best.
Alternatives are Often Cheaper
As anyone that has ever gone shopping for a leather jacket knows, genuine leather goods are very expensive. For those consumers demanding quality and chic looking leather goods, buying products made with faux leather will likely save them considerable money.
It may be true that many consumers are willing to pay a premium for leather goods, but manufactures know that the market for a similar product at a much lower price is much much bigger. This fact alone, fuels a race to find a leather alternative that performs as well as the real thing.
Stand Against Animal Cruelty
According to PETA, over a billion animals are killed around the world every year to provide the leather goods industry with a fresh supply of tanned hides. Activists say that the horrors of "factory farming" animals for food and hides is inhumane and has to stop. In this view, buying genuine leather products directly supports the cruelty of animals. However some brands as EIKEN, use leather materials that are meat industry by-products, avoiding "extra" killing and making the most of the animal products, that would otherwise go to waste.
Animals are often subjected to extreme crowding and confinement in unhealthy, dirty, and often diseased environments. They are sometimes overfed, underfeed, and even beaten to "tenderize" the meat. In some cases, young animals are boiled or even skinned alive as it is believed the leather will be of the highest quality. This is why it is very important to carefully chose premium leather over cheap ones.
Better for the Planet
The environmental hazards of leather are well documented. The process of turning animal skins into leather requires treating the hides with dangerous chemicals. Chemicals used in the production of leather include:
- Mineral salts
- Coal-tar derivatives
Some dyes used to change the finished look of leather products are cyanide-based, one of the most poisonous substances known to man. Leather production in the U.S. is chrome-tanned and the waste contains chromium which is a hazardous material.
What's more, tanning effluent used to treat the leather and keep it from rotting away like skin tends to do, is laced with pollutants. The common tannery chemical arsenic is a proven carcinogenic and studies have shown that workers in tanneries are up to 50% more likely to develop cancer.
If you think leather products are "environmentally friendly" and "all-natural" you may want to think again. The environmental impact of the leather industry is huge and is one of the greatest arguments for switching to leather alternatives. After all, you want to keep your must-have belongings safe in a style you can be proud of, don't you? If you want to stay with real leather, you might want to opt for vegetable tanned leather which use natural elements to transform the skin.
Imitation Exotic Leathers
The majority of leather produced and sold in The United States and the European Union comes from the multibillion-dollar beef industry where cow and calf hides are sold as part of the business of using these animals for their meat and byproducts. Other common animal hides used to produce leathers are sheep, lambs, goats, and pigs.
Some would say that because these animals are slaughtered for food anyway, turning their hides into useful products is only avoiding being wasteful. However, there are many species of animals that are hunted and killed in the wild specifically to harvest their hides for leather production. This is not sustainable anymore and we can't support such practices.
Many of these animals are protected by conservation laws, but that doesn't stop poachers from cashing in to the tune of $7-21 billion annually on the demand for exotic leathers made from the skins of:
There are leather alternatives that use various dyes and manufacturing techniques such as embossing to imitate any and all exotic leathers. Thanks to science and human ingenuity, there is no longer a need to kill off any more creatures in the name of fashion. Not to mention you won't be needing a separate leather backpack to carry your cash when you go shopping.
What Is Bonded Leather?
Bonded leather, also known as LeatherSoft or composite leather, is a manufactured leather that contains, normally, 10-20% genuine leather. Scaps of genuine leather is mixed with polyurethane binding agent. The resulting material is rolled flat onto a paper backing using adhesives.
If you are purist seeking to eliminate animal hide in the products you buy, bonded leather may not be for you. Others would argue that bonded leather is a legitimate leather alternative as the animal hide used in bonded leather is often recycled from discarded leather from the manufacturing of genuine leather goods. Although this is true in many cases, some bonded leather is manufactured using raw hides, not recycled leather goods or production waste.
The Pros and Cons
The biggest advantage of bonded leather over genuine leather is cost - it is much cheaper than genuine leather. Bonded leather is also smooth with a consistent texture, unlike genuine leather, which is marked with imperfections. It is available in a variety of colours/patterns and even smells more like real leather than other faux leather.
Generally speaking, bonded leather is not as durable as real leather and its lifespan is much shorter. Bonded leather wears away over time, flakes, cracks, peels, and the colour fades in the sunlight. Yet, if properly taken care of, bonded leather can last for years even decades before degrading. However, if you are looking for a long-lasting alternative to genuine leather, bonded leather is not the best choice.
Because of these shortcomings, bonded leather is not likely to replace high-quality leather products anytime soon. As material science progresses this may not always be the case. In fact, a relatively new addition to the bonded leather market, Dyneema Bonded Leather, manufactured with a tear-resistant fabric produces a bonded leather they claim is 15x stronger than steel.
What Is Vegan Leather?
In short, vegan leather is any material created with the purpose of imitating the look and feel of real leather. Authentic vegan leather is not made from any part of an animal.
The term vegan leather may be a bit misleading as it suggests that the material is "all-natural" but in reality, vegan leather is just another term for animal-free leather alternatives. Although there are some vegan leathers made from natural sources, as we are about to discuss, the most commonly used material to make vegan leather are plastic-based which falls under the term "faux leather". As we will cover later, faux leather is far from all-natural.
Incidentally, this is why many people refer to faux leather as pleather, a word made from plastic and leather. For those of you that are reading this article in hopes you will find an all-natural and animal-free alternative to leather it is time to pay close attention. Next, we take a look at the revolutionary materials the promise to make fashion more sustainable.
Piñatex Pineapple Leather
This material is truly exciting, as it is an artificial leather that seems to tick every box. It is a natural leather alternative made from the cellulose fibres extracted from pineapple leaves. Piñatex leather is breathable and flexible making it an ideal material for manufacturing products such as handbags, wallets, seat covers, shoes, and watch bands.
Piñatex leather comes in all the colours of the rainbow and a variety of textures. The synthetic leather has been revered by many for its softer and more pliable leather-like feel when compared to other leather alternatives.
A Brief History
Piñatex leather is the brainchild of Dr Carmen Hijosa. In the 1990s, Dr Hijosa was consulting for the leather goods industry in the Philippines when she became concerned about the poor quality of leather goods produced on the islands. She observed that much like the rest of the world, the leather industry in the Philipines was environmentally unsustainable and bad for the health of the locals working with leather.
In a flash of inspiration, Dr Hijosa wondered if a traditional philippine garment called the barong tagalog could hold the key to making a natural leather alternative. The fancy embroidered shirt is worn untucked over an undershirt and is considered a lace-like luxury textile. It is traditionally made from piña, a Philippine fibre made from pineapple leaves dating back to the 17th century.
Dr Hijosa set out to develop a leather-like material from piña, spending seven years on the project earning a PhD at the Royal College of Art in London. Over the course of its development, she collaborated with Bangor University in Wales and Leitat Technological Centre in Spain, among others. Piñatex won the Arts Foundation UK award for Material Innovation in 2016.
How Is Piñatex® Produced?
The main ingredient in Piñatex is the long fibres of pineapple leaves. The global pineapple industry produces 40 million Kilograms of waste pineapple leaves each year. These wasted leaves are normally burned or left to rote.
The normally wasted leaves of 16 pineapple plants are used to create 1 square meter of Piñatex. The production process uses none of the harmful chemicals and processes that are used in the production of genuine leather which gets two thumbs up from environmental activists.
The new industry has created an additional income for pineapple farmers and the biomass leftover from the process is used as a fertilizer. The pineapple cellulose fibres are mixed with a petroleum-based resin to create Piñatex leather.
Not Perfect But Close
Unfortunately, although this natural faux leather is made mostly from waste products, the leather is not biodegradable. The leather is produced with PLA (Polylactic acid), which is also known as bio-plastic. Because PLA is sourced from renewable resources it is often mislabeled as biodegradable.
In 2015, The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published a detailed paper entitled Biodegradable Plastics and Marine Litter in which they explained the misconceptions and dangers of bio-plastic on the world's oceans. Dr Hijosa and her Piñatex manufacturing company, Ananas Anam Ltd., continue to research alternatives for an even more sustainable option to PLA.
Jacron paper leather
This truly unique material is not actually a fabric, but rather a paper as it is made from high-density wood pulp cellulose. In fact, the correct term is Jacron paper, not Jacron leather. Jacron is a leather-like thick paper that is famously used for printed labels on blue jeans. in fact, that was exactly what it was designed for back in the 1980s.
Since Jargon is made from cellulose it is considered a sustainable vegan leather alternative and is widely used in the fashion industry. It is most commonly used to replace leather patches but is also used in the manufacturing of shoes and accessories. Jacron is incorporated in a surprisingly wide range of products including:
- Home crafts and gifts
- Product cases and packages
- Home furnishings
Jacron is an extremely versatile leather alternative as it looks and feels like leather. Jacron is widely used as a substitute to genuine leather in nearly every application. Long thought to be the ultimate in leather alternatives Jacron is a paper with truly amazing properties.
Properties of Jacron
Unlike writing paper or paper money, Jacron paper is washable, tear-resistant, and remarkably durable. Actually Jacron paper is not much like any traditional paper at all. It doesn't absorb water or moisture making it easy to clean.
Jacron even has some properties that rival genuine leather to boot. It is more abrasion resistant than soft leathers and has a high UV-stability. Unlike genuine leather, printing or embossing Jacron in amazing detail is possible. Some other descriptions of Jacron are:
- Fast drying
- Renewable and sustainable
With a list of advantages like that you might be wondering – does Jacron have any shortcomings? Unfortunately, Jacron does have a few disadvantages that keep it from being a complete replacement for the real thing. Jacron is very stiff with low elasticity, isn't a breathable material, and doesn't handle heat or chemicals well.
How is Jacron Made?
Jacron is made much the same as regular paper. The process all starts with debarking the harvested tree. The wood is chipped into manageable sized pieces and sent on to the next phase - pulping. Wood pulp production is a centuries-old art that is nearly completely self-sufficient and sustainable.
The wood chips are cooked in a hydroxide and sulfide liquor under high pressure. This process separates the lignin from the wood and leaves the cellulose fibres. The fibres are then missed with an acrylic polymer and the resulting substrate is pressed into sheets.
After dyeing the sheet, an anti-staining and soaping agent is applied to remove any "floating colour". The resulting leather-like paper can then be printed, textured, or embossed and cut to the desired size for shipping to the factory to be used in the products mentioned above.
Yes, that's right. Shrooms are now used to make a natural leather alternative that gives real leather a run for its money - or more accurately, your money. Mushroom leather is all-natural, strong, flexible, and durable material that theoretically could replace animal leather in most applications.
What makes mushroom leather so unique is the fact that it is not really produced but, more accurately, grown. Material scientist and research and development sections of companies are only beginning to understand the potential mushrooms have as a material. Believe it or not, the Stanford designer, Philip Ross, discovered that mushrooms make a strong brick and has demonstrated how mushroom bricks could be used as an organic building material.
Mushroom Leather's Amazing Characteristics
If you are looking for the only 100% natural, completely sustainable, and biodegradable leather alternative, look no further. Mushroom leather is a treehuggers dream material. Mushroom leather requires only a fraction of the resources of animal farming and using the fruit of the Gods, this leather alternative requires no plastic polymers or toxic chemicals to produce.
Mushroom leather takes only two weeks to grow to the same size as a cowhide. What's more, mushroom leather can be grown to any size, thickness, or shape.
How is Mushroom Leather Grown?
Actually, mushroom leather is technically not made of mushrooms, at least not the part of the mushroom that we cut up and put on pizza. The basic material of mushroom leather is mycelium. Mycelium is the vegetative part of the fungus and is likened to plant roots. Mycelium is a network of fine white filaments that can be grown in a variety of biological substrates including sawdust, rice, and even pistachio shells.
Less than a decade ago, in 2013, a danish product designer named Jonas Edvard created the first organic mushroom textile. He used the mycelium grown in plant fibres left after harvest in a commercial oyster mushroom farm. Jonas was amazed to discover that the mycelium infused substrate could be shaped and dried out to make a strong fabric-like material.
There are many ways of producing, or rather growing, mushroom leather. The variations are essentially different combinations of fungi species and substrates (the food the mycelium grows in). The mycelium is grown to the desired mass, generally, in plastic bags.
The growing process only takes two to three weeks. the biomass of substrate and mycelium is extracted from the growing container and pressed to the desired thickness, size and shape. The look and texture of the mushroom leather can be endlessly altered by using dyes and different compression plates.
Disadvantages of Mushroom Leather
With all these amazing advantages, there, of course, has to be a few disadvantages. The "life expectancy" of mushroom leather is considerably less than real leather and, although it is strong, it is nowhere as durable as genuine leather. Another potential disadvantage is the smell, which some people find unpleasant.
You may never have even dreamed that leather made from cactus could be a thing, but now - it is. Desserto® was founded in 2019 in the only appropriate place, Mexico. The inventors of cactus-based leather, Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez, were searching for an alternative to animal skin leather as they were both keenly aware of the leather industries toll on the environment and wanted to make a difference.
Researching plant-based vegan leathers, the friends thought why not cactus as it is the most abundant plant in Mexico? Why not, indeed. They quit their day jobs and partnered up to found Andriano Di Marte, a company focused on developing Desserto®, which is also known as cactus or nopal vegan leather.
How is Cactus Leather Made?
Very carefully, of course, as cacti have nasty thorns. But seriously, Desserto® is made from the Nopal cactus otherwise known as the prickly pear. All the cactus raw material comes from a ranch the two own in Zarcatecas. They only harvest the mature leaves of the cactus as to not harm the plant and keep a steady supply coming from the same cactus for 8 years, they say.
The ranch is completely natural and organic with no herbicides or pesticides used or needed. There is no need for irrigation or farming as the cactus grow naturally with only rainwater to sustain them. The cactus leaves are dried in the sun and the whole process is extremely eco-friendly with very little energy wasted.
The formula they use to produce the cactus-based leather is a guarded secret. We imagine that the smooth, flexible, and durable leather-like material is made with some sort of faux leather technology, but it is hard to say for sure. If you are keen to try cactus leather it is currently only available in limited quantities from their website.
Backed by exploding public support and good old venture capital, new leather alternatives are popping up everywhere. This ultimate guide would not be complete without mentioning a few more of the brands that have developed creative and interesting materials to challenge the reigning material king of the ages. Here are our honourable mentions and their creative primary materials:
- Cork leather - made from cork tree bark
- Mirium - Made from a mix of cork, coconut, and other plants
- Leaf leather- made from banana tree leaves and other leaves
- Malai - made from coconuts
- Frumat - made from apples
- Vegea - made from wine grapes
- Coffee leather - made from coffee beans
All of the aforementioned natural vegan leathers are not widely available yet, but we expect that sustainable vegan leather is a trend that will be around for a long time. Maybe as long as genuine leather itself and maybe one day it will be even more commonly used than animal leather. For now, the most widely accepted and available vegan leathers fall under the category of faux leather which we will cover in detail next.
What Is PVC Leather and PU Leather?
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, faux leather is a type of vegan leather that is manufactured using fossil fuel-derived plastics. Both PVC and PU leathers are types of artificial leathers that have been around for a long time. These leather alternatives are produced by applying and bonding a layer of thermoplastic polymer to a layer of fabric.
The resulting material was cheaper to produce than animal skin leathers, comparably durable, and easy to clean. Over the years, innovations in faux leather, like embossing, gave way to popular faux leathers like faux suede. Faux sued was extremely popular in the 1950s and immortalized by Elvis Presley's hit song "blue suede shoes."
PVC Leather and Vinyl
The first of these faux leathers was created by a German chemist named Eugen Bauman in the late 1800s. The petroleum-based plastic polymer he synthesized was called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). His discovery was the precursor to PVC leather and later vinyl, both of which are used in the manufacturing of a wide range of projects today.
It wasn't until the 1920s when a researcher at BF Goodrich discovered a way to plasticize PVC to make vinyl, did the new material begin to rally take off. Vinyl will forever have a special place in the heart of music lovers through the classic vinyl record made possible by PVC.
The Substantial Disadvantages of PVC Leather
Although it may be true that no animals die to make PVC leather products, the material is far from environmentally friendly. It requires a substantial amount of energy to make and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. When PVC leather is manufactured it releases carcinogenic dioxins into the atmosphere.
These toxic fumes pose a great health risk to workers. Furthermore, phthalate plasticizers are used to make the material soft and flexible. These chemicals are also known to cause cancer and endocrine disorders.
Arguably the worst part about PVC Leather products, they last forever. The material is not biodegradable or recyclable meaning the slow decay of your unwanted PVC leather goods will continue to pollute the environment for hundreds of years.
Introduction of PU Leather
Not to be confused with "pē-‘ū or P.U." which is commonly used to say something has a foul odour, although PU leather does have a distinct chemical smell to it, the PU stands for "polyurethane". Polyurethane is a thermoplastic polymer that is most commonly used in manufacturing shoes and furniture. 100% PU faux leather, being completely artificial, is said to be a vegan leather alternative.
PU faux leather is, by far, the most common and widely available leather alternative on the market today. PU leather is now much more popular than PVC-based leather because it is softer, more flexible, and less toxic. Although PU Leather is less toxic and manufacturers continue to refine the formula to be less harmful to the environment, it is still a rather eco-unfriendly.
Ultrasuede® to Ease Your Mind a Bit
In 2018 a Japanese company, Toray Industries, announced Ultrasued® BX, the world's first non-woven material with a suede texture using plant-based Polyurethane. The innovative new PU Leather alternative is made from 30% plant-based raw materials. This previously unimaginable feat offers a more environmentally friendly PU leather that has a pleasant suede texture.
Much like all the leather alternatives we covered in this article, it's far from perfect, but a step in the right direction. With so many promising candidates, it seems that it is just a matter of time before humankind finds a truly suitable and superior replacement to leather, one of our oldest, trusted, and beloved friends.
How to Identify Vegan Leathers?
With a little practice and experience, anyone can easily learn to spot the differences between types of vegan leathers. The surefire way to know whether a product is a vegan leather or animal leather is to read the label.
No matter what type of leather a product is made with, they will normally be proud to say so and they will make it very clear on their branding label. Not to mention, it is generally a requirement in most countries to put the materials used clearly on the product for consumer awareness purposes.
Either Way Leather Is Here to Stay
Leather alternatives like faux leather have been providing a cheap replacement to expensive genuine animal leather products for years. Yet, they never were good enough or sustainable enough to truly be called leather replacements. Perhaps as time goes on and the demand for better leather alternatives grows, we will one day see a complete solution to replacing leather with an animal-free material that is the same or better than the greatness that is 100% genuine leather.
At EIKEN, we're working with only high-quality full grain leather and we're experiencing new natural materials to offer you vegan collections in the coming years. If you are ready to get some leather for yourself, take a moment to check out our line of high-quality leather shoulder bags and messenger bags.