Leather is a material that has historically been hard to emulate well. We’ve all bought cheap faux-leather shoes or jackets, only for the materials to start cracking and crumbling months later.
Luckily, vegan leather has come a long way and today there is a variety of high-quality, durable, and excellent-looking leather alternatives available.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about these vegan leathers, including what it is, how they are made, the different kinds of vegan leather you can find, and some interesting sustainable fashion brands crafting high-quality products using vegan leather.
What is Vegan Leather?
Vegan leather is any material that looks like traditional animal-based leather, but made using cruelty-free processes and materials.
Today, you can find vegan leathers made from polyurethane (PU), cork, recycled plastics, pineapple leather (piñatex), and mushroom leather.
What are the Best Vegan Leather Alternatives?
1. Polyurethane (PU)
The most common type of vegan leather available is made from Polyurethane. You’ll often see this referred to as ‘PU’ on brand websites.
PU is created through a chemical process that doesn’t have a heavy impact on the environment. Despite that, it’s still not the best option out there because it does generally require the use of non-renewable resources to create, and it isn’t easily biodegradable.
That said, it is vegan and no animal products are used in the process of creating polyurethane.
Once the chemical reaction to create polyurethane has taken place, the resulting PU material is inert and non-toxic.
The key differences between ‘real’ leather and PU-based vegan leather is:
- The lack of leather smell
- PU leather is waterproof
PU is used by brands like:
- Doesn’t require any special care
- Can usually be recycled at the end of its lifecycle
- Durable and can last for years
- Available in different styles, textures, and colors
- Often has a shorter life than animal leather
- Can require fossil fuels in the production process
- Quality can often be lacking
2. Recycled Plastics and Rubbers
Waste plastic, such as plastic from discarded fishing nets, or used plastic bottles, is a good source of vegan leather.
As well as that, some brands use materials like recycled tires to create products that have a leather-like appearance.
Using waste materials is a good option, however, it unfortunately doesn’t tackle the problem of plastic creation at the source, which is an inherently unsustainable material.
- Helps reduce plastic and rubber waste
- Rubber leather is extremely durable
- Doesn’t tackle plastic creation at the source
- Lack of standard process so you every brand’s recycled plastic leather will differ in look
3. Cork Leather
Cork leather is often used for items like bags, purses, and shoes.
Cork is a completely eco-friendly material. It’s harvested from cork trees, and during the process, the trees are not harmed. Instead, they’ll re-grow their cork exterior over time, and can be harvested again in the future. No trees need to be cut down, or harmed in any way.
Cork leather retains the look and feel of cork, so it’s not a perfect leather alternative if you’re looking for products look like animal leather.
Cork leather is used by brands like:
- 100% natural material
- Harvesting cork does not harm the trees
- Changes with age, like animal leather
- Naturally waterproof
- Not a great alternative if you want your product to look exactly like animal leather
4. Pineapple Leather (Piñatex)
Piñatex is a vegan leather made from pineapple plant waste. Yes, you read that right.
Pineapple leaves are usually left to rot naturally or burned after pineapples are harvested in many parts of the world. Instead of letting these leaves go to waste, innovative brands are starting to repurpose them into a pineapple leather.
Unfortunately, turning the leaves into durable Piñatex does often require a PU coating. That means it’s not completely eco-friendly, as the process used to create PU does use fossil fuels.
Brands using Piñatex:
- Turns an otherwise wasted resource into useful items
- Durable and long-lasting
- Earth-friendly production process compared to many other leather alternatives
- Generates income for pineapple farmers
- Looks and feels similar to real leather
- Can require PU to coat the material
5. Mushroom Leather
Mushroom leather is an incredible vegan leather option pioneered by Mylo.
It’s made from mycelium, which is a fully natural material.
Lab-grown mushroom leather will be cruelty-free whereas mushroom leather created from wild mycelium will generally not be seen as cruelty-free, as during the harvesting process there’s a likelihood that insects or other small creatures may be harmed.
Brands using mushroom leather include:
- Durable and tough, naturally waterproof
- Looks like real leather
- Possible for it to be non-vegan if harvested badly
These vegan leather alternatives are the perfect cruelty-free alternative to traditional animal leather.
There are pros and cons to each one, and we’ll leave it up to you to decide which one is best. However, make sure to ensure the brand you’re buying from isn’t using vegan leather to greenwash, and are actually committing to serious change through using more ethical materials.
If you’ve tested any vegan leather options and have feedback on them that you think we should know about, make sure to let us know in the comments below!