The Plastic in Vegan Leather

  • by Vivienne Austin

In the last few years, we've seen many brands looking into vegan alternatives to real leather in the hope of delivering a demand for a more sustainable and ethical option to the one that slaughters animals in order to create raw materials.

Vegan leather is a broad term applied to many different materials which are both animal-free and aesthetically as well as functionally similar to leather made from skin. The broad use of this term is what makes it difficult to know which options are actually best. Vegan leather is often made from either of these two plastic polymers: polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC); these are the most commonly used polymers due to their wrinkled texture which helps to give the effect of real leather. As well as these synthetic materials though, vegan leather can also be made from more natural resources, including pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, and recycled plastic.

Despite the raw materials used to produce vegan leather sounding nothing like what goes into real leather products, this has kept growing in the past few years, meaning that well-made vegan-leather products can often be mistaken for the real thing! When assessing the sustainability credentials of these materials though, we need to look at its raw properties and how it's made: not all vegan leather is created the same way. Some are made from plant-based materials, while others are created from artificial products. But, are vegan-leather alternatives actually better for our environment than the real thing? It depends.


Plastic-based vegan leather



Within the category of vegan leather, there are materials that vary quite a lot in terms of how sustainable the production is. Even if synthetic leather is less harmful than real leather for the planet, it is still fossil fuel based and not viable for the future of fashion. 


Faux leather had a big success in the 2010s when the material got rebranded into “vegan leather” or “pleather” and carried the connotation of a ‘cruelty-free’ material. But no matter the name, pleather or vegan leather is made out of plastic and it’s neither a sustainable nor animal-friendly option to conventional leather. 


Like all plastics, PU and PVC are derived from petroleum or natural gas. Extracting fossil fuels to manufacture synthetic vegan leather comes at a high cost both for the environment and the human beings. In particular, the carbon footprint and emissions associated in producing these materials are enormous. Not just that, but at the end of their lives, these materials will eventually either get dumped in a landfill where they’ll leach harmful chemicals for decades; be incinerated, releasing carbon into the atmosphere; or disintegrate into microplastic pollution that ends up in our oceans, drinking water, and soils. 


Although these are materials that have been marketed as “vegan”, they are not recyclable or compostable, hence just not sustainable at all.


Plant-based vegan leather



We've all heard of the plant-based leather alternatives taking on the leather industry in the past couple of years: from apple skin, mushrooms, pineapple leaves, to mango and orange peels. These raw materials are all saved from waste and transformed into leather-looking material. While this sounds great and a fantastic alternative to plastic-based or animal derived leather, the truth is that most of these plant-based leathers on the market still use some plastic resin, glue, or coating as a shortcut to meet the performance threshold. In fact, the ratio of plant to plastic in these materials,  can be as much as 80-20 or as little as 30-70, depending on the company and the brand.


Using plant inputs (especially agricultural by-products and food waste) can make the supply chain more climate-friendly and environmentally responsible. However, it’s not clear that plant-plastic hybrids are any more sustainable than pleather once you take into account the end-of-life impacts. 


Plant-plastic hybrid vegan leather

As with cotton-polyester blends, mixing natural materials with plastic results in an end-product that is neither recyclable nor compostable. Because of this, plant-plastic hybrids are the worst ‘vegan leather’ option as we are taking bio based materials, which were once biodegradable, and transforming them into non-compostable materials.  These hybrids can only be incinerated or landfilled and unfortunately, brands and businesses are showing very little transparency about the materials so far.


The future of vegan leather



For all brands, manufacturers and designers committed to sustainable fashion, the industry standard for “plant-based leather” must be 100% biobased, or in other words, plastic-free. We’ve talked about it before, but MIRUM seems to be the most exciting entrant into the field of plant-based leather. This material does not compromise on performance and it does not have any plastic-based finish to it, making it fully compostable and biodegradable. You can check out all the facts and our thoughts on this material here, as well as a few brands that have already adopted it into their collections.


All the next-gen materials are plant derived, mycelium-based, obtained from fermentation, lab-grown or recycled from old materials. The solution to finding the right vegan leather alternative is supporting the growth of bio-based and recycled leather alternatives as much as we can.


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