Among the many vegan materials gaining ground at the moment, plant-based leather is perhaps among the most exciting developments. A far cry from the “pleather” of the past, vegan leather can now be made from pineapples, mangos, apples, cactuses and other natural sources. Some of the most prominent vegan leathers on the market today include Piñatex (which is made from pineapple leaf fibres), Vegea (made from waste from the wine grape industry), apple leather and cork.
But exciting as this innovation is, it can also be confusing: for a start, what is vegan leather? Is it durable? Is it all made from plastic? Is it good or bad for the environment? Here, we answer all the questions you might have about these enticing yet perplexing new materials.
By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert.
What is vegan leather?
The term “vegan leather” is a catch-all term to signify any leather that does not come from an animal. Simply put, any leather that is not animal-based is vegan. In the past, before the concept of “vegan” was commonplace, animal-free leather was known as faux leather or “pleather”, and was largely made from petroleum-based plastic materials such as PVC or polyurethane. Today, vegan leather can also come from natural, plant-derived sources such as apples, pineapple leaves, cactuses, coconuts, cork, mushrooms and bio-oils from cereal crops.
Is vegan leather durable?
Vegan leather has come a long way since the days of shiny, sticky “pleather” that often got cracks and came apart after a brief period of use. Durability is among the factors that stands out about the new crop of resistant vegan leathers – as they are commonly created by companies whose main ethos is slow fashion, the idea is for them to be as long-lasting as possible. An example of this is pineapple leather Piñatex, created by Brazilian company Ananas Anam, which is known for its durability. Plus, let's bust a myth: animal leather breaks, too. Animal skin is not everlasting, and while some animal-based leather items can have a long life, others can end up with tears, holes and signs of wear.
Is vegan leather plastic?
It can certainly be – but it's very reductive and outdated to claim that all leather that isn't made from animal skin is plastic. PVC and PU vegan leathers still exist, sure, but saying that all vegan leather is made from these materials would be akin to stating that all animal leather comes from cows and no other animals are used for leather. Leather is arguably the most diverse area of innovation in vegan fashion, and today's vegan leathers are made from pineapple leaf fibres, apples, grapes (waste from the apple juice and wine industries), coconuts, mushrooms, cork and other plant-based sources.
Plastic can still be involved, as some of these materials have coating made from synthetic substances – but this can be the case with animal leathers too, such as split leather, which is sometimes coated with plastic to make it easier to look after. Plus, many plant innovators in the leather arena are working on minimising their use of plastic, and alternatives such as the mango leather created by Dutch company FruitLeather Rotterdam can be made from up to 90% fruit!
In addition, some vegan brands use a plant-based plastic made from biopolyoils from cereal crops which is biodegradable – and it feels and looks incredibly like animal leather. Brands working with this sustainable vegan leather include Watson & Wolfe, HOZEN and Good Guys.
Is vegan leather good quality?
The quality of vegan leather varies widely. From high-street low-cost brands that may focus on other factors over quality (and which have their own series of issues with regards to workers' rights and environmental sustainability) to designs such as the accessories in apple leather sold by brands like Luxtra and Ashoka, which favour quality and durability, vegan leather exists across the fashion spectrum.
Jessica Kruger, founder of Luxtra, says: “The vegan leathers we use are made by companies that have decades of textile and manufacturing experience. Aside from being rigorously tested across a spectrum of technical qualities (abrasion, strength, stretch etc) they are beautifully finished, as only the Italians know how!”
Is vegan leather good or bad for the environment?
This is a complicated question. Traditionally produced vegan leather, made from plastic polymers, are no friend to the environment as they don't biodegrade and also release microplastics into the waterways. Even so, vegan leathers don't come close to the vast and extensive damage that animal leather causes to our planet. Rearing animals for consumption is extremely resource-intensive and polluting, which is why the 2017 Pulse of Fashion Industry Report put cow leather at the top of its list of materials that have the highest cradle-to-gate environmental impact per kg of material – way above synthetics like polyurethane and nylon. By now most of us are aware of the damage that animal agriculture does to the environment, but not many of us stop to remember that leather is part of animal agriculture.
But the good news is that today you no longer have to choose between plastic and cow skin: the new crop of plant leathers are much kinder to the planet than both their plastic-derived and animal-based counterparts. Many of these materials require many fewer chemicals than plastic or animal leathers, are less polluting of waterways and soil, and some are also biodegradable.
How to clean and care for vegan leather?
Vegan leather is relatively easy to clean. Often, just wiping with a damp cloth is enough, while other times a mild detergent will do the job. But there are other practices that could be useful for keeping your vegan leather looking its best. For example, Ananas Anam recommends recommends using a colourless wax to keep pineapple leather Piñatex looking hydrated.
Is vegan leather waterproof?
Good news: vegan leather is very frequently waterproof. This is the upside of it either being made of, or being finished with, synthetics. Where animal leather might require waterproofing sprays, traditionally made vegan leather rarely does.
Plant-based leathers also hold up pretty well. Piñatex, for example, is water-resistant, if not entirely waterproof. Many brands using cork to create vegan leather also offer waterproof products. Coconut leather from the brand Malai, as well as Vegea wine leather, are also waterproof.
Can vegan leather be repaired?
If your vegan accessories crack, don't despair: all is not lost. Sometimes, vegan leather products can be repaired and given new life. Repair kits specifically dedicated to vegan leather can be effective, as can mending products for leather that are made for furniture. One quick and easy way to fix flaking faux leather is to peel away the flakes and use leather paint in a matching colour to cover up the damage.
But as with many things, prevention is the best course of action – so rather than having to fix your faux leather when the damage is already done, take care of your products to avoid them getting ruined in the first place. An easy way to do that is to put coconut on your vegan leather to keep it from cracking – think of it as sunscreen for your vegan leather.
Does vegan leather biodegrade?
This depends on the kind of vegan leather in question. If we're talking about PVC or polyurethane leather, then the very issue about them is that they do not biodegrade. Although those made from biopolyoils (plant-based sources) do biodegrade which is great news.
And once again – plant leathers to the rescue. For example, some apple leather is 100% biodegradable. Cork, perhaps the most eco-friendly leather there is, also biodegrades, as does Mirum, a sustainable vegan leather made from agricultural waste.
The bottom line is that vegan leather is available in a variety of options and versions, and different things may be true for different materials. But one thing is certain: while human innovation can improve, killing an animal will always be killing an animal. We can do better than that, and seeing the damage that animal agriculture does to the planet, we have to.
By Sascha Camilli
Sascha Camilli is the founder of the world's first digital vegan fashion magazine, Vilda Magazine and the host of fashion podcast Catwalk Rebel. She was selected as one of Glamour UK's Most Empowering Nu-Gen Activists and is a frequent public speaker on the topic of vegan fashion and material innovation. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, read our interview with her here.
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Cover image by Ashoka Paris