In the guide below however, we provide an overview of whether faux leather might be eco friendly, sustainable and animal friendly according to various measures.
If you’re interested in how real leather compares, you can read a guide on the sustainability of real leather here.
Summary – Is Faux Leather Sustainable, Eco Friendly & Cruelty Free?
Sustainability & Eco Friendliness
– Potential Benefits
Several reports indicate that faux leather has a lower environmental and sustainability footprint than real leather across several measureables (which you can read about in the guide below). When looking at the carbon footprint specifically, in terms of carbon emitted per square metre of leather produced, real leather may have a footprint 7 times as large when including the agricultural stage in the lifecycle assessment, according to one report
Silicone faux leather is a lesser used form of faux leather that may have some sustainability and environmental benefits that PU and PVC faux leather don’t, and it’s also an organic polymer, instead of inorganic
PU (polyurethane) faux leather may have some environmental and benefits over PVC faux leather, specifically because it doesn’t produce dioxins, and doesn’t need additional plasticizers
Some faux leathers make use of bio based materials like plant materials, and these may have some positive sustainability related features to them (although, they aren’t a perfect solution)
There might be a few different ways to make faux leather more sustainable, such as using less PVC, upcycling plastic, and using specific bio based faux leather materials like cork i.e. cork could be on of the most sustainable. New coatings for polyurethane can also be more eco friendly.
– Potential Drawbacks
Most faux leathers are currently made from a plastic top layer, and a fabric backing like polyester – both materials come from petroleum, and have an environmental footprint to produce.
Plastic and polyester generally aren’t biodegradable, and both may never fully degrade
Plastic and polyester both have the ability to break down into micro plastics, and result in micro plastic pollution
It can be difficult to recycle or upcycle some faux leathers because of how they are bonded and put together
PVC faux leather has a range of it’s own potential environmental issues to consider, such as using a range of chemicals to make it (plasticizers being one example), and also having the ability to release toxins and harmful compounds when it’s disposed of (phthalates can leach from it in the environment), or burnt (dioxins can emit from it when burnt). Organic pollutants may also be an issue
Polyurethane faux leathers can also use solvents for production (to tun polyurethane into a liquid), which can have toxic effects environmentally in some cases
Most faux leathers have to use chemicals not only for production, but also for solidification when layered or laminated materials are used, and for adhesives
Bio based faux leathers may still use plastic based polymers for binding and added durability, meaning they aren’t a perfect solution for sustainability yet. More development is needed on them
Compared to real leather, faux leather does not farm or slaughter animals to produce the faux leather. However, some argue that the production and subsequent pollution by faux leather may impact animals directly
PVC leather may have the potential to expose workers in some countries with more lax workers healthy and safety regulations to dioxins and other potentially toxic or harmful substances, with phthalates being one other example
Polyurethane may not have the same toxicity problems as PVC
Any faux leather that releases phthalates may have potential to impact human health
There are different types of faux leather that use different cover materials,, and different fabric backings. Polyurethane is one of the most common cover materials, and polyester a common fabric backing
Faux leather has it’s own set of traits, properties and characteristics that make it different to real leather in terms of how it can be made and modified, and also how it can be used
PU faux leather, and PVC faux leather have their own set of traits and characteristics which set them apart too. Silicone faux leather may combine the traits of both
Faux leather can also be modified with technology to form different traits in the final product, whereas that can’t be done with a natural animal hide
Bio based faux leathers may have different traits to some plastic faux leathers, such as being breathable, just as one example
The faux leather industry is worth in the tens of billions of dollars at the moment, and is expected to continue to grow in the future
PU (polyurethane) synthetic faux leather has the biggest market share by a reasonable margin, followed by PVC synthetic faux leather, and bio based leathers are in third
Polyurethane (PU leather) might cost less than real leather but might be more expensive to produce than Vinyl.
Real Leather vs Faux Leather Comparison
What About The Eco Friendliness & Sustainability Of Other Materials?
These guides may provide further insight on how faux leather compares to these fibres which can be used in materials.
Other Factors That Might Impact The Sustainability Or Eco Friendliness Of Materials
*This Guide Is A Generalisation Only
It’s important to note that faux leather production variables and processes can differ between between producers and suppliers (especially between countries), and the usage and disposal of faux leather products can vary (as well as the products themselves).
These factors and other factors can impact the final sustainability and eco friendliness footprint of different faux leathers.
With any leather product, or product in general, you might ask yourself overall how it’s made, how long you can use it before you need to replace it, and then, what will happen when you need to dispose of it.
A real leather product that lasts decades may average out it’s sustainability footprint over a greater period of time than a faux leather product that breaks down only after a few years for example.
What Is Faux Leather, & What Is It Used For?
Faux leather is a man made material.
It’s used as a substitute and look-alike to real leather (hence the name artificial leather).
It can be used in instances where a faux leather is more suitable (based on the traits of both types of leather), and has a number of uses, including but not limited to upholstery, clothing, footwear and more.
harpersbazaar.com notes that designers may use real leather for some products, and faux leather for others. For example: ‘… [some designers might use] faux leather for trousers and jackets, but [use real leather] when it comes to accessories [like shoes or bags]
Is Faux Leather The Same As Vegan Leather?
They are essentially the same thing.
Vegan leather is leather that doesn’t use animal derived products like skins and hides, and faux leather doesn’t use any animal derived products.
Other Names For Faux Leather
A few other names might include synthetic leather, artificial leather, pleather (plastic leather), vegan leather, and leatherette, just to name a few.
What Is Faux Leather Made Of?
Faux leather generally composes of a layer (or several layers) of material, adhered to a fabric backing.
One of the most common materials is plastic based material (like PU or PVC), and a common fabric backing is polyester (but other backing fabrics can be used).
Plastic is generally derived from petroleum, and polyester fibres and fabric are also derived from petroleum feedstock as well.
From oecotextiles.wordpress.com: [Fake leather is] made from oil in the form of plastic – either PVC or polyurethane [… and is] made by bonding the plastic to a fabric backing.
Most Common Types Of Faux Leather
garrettleather.com mentions that two types of faux leather are bi-cast, and also bonded faux leather.
But, beyond those two types of faux leather, the two most common forms of faux leather are:
– Polyurethane leather (PU leather)
– Poly Vinyl Chloride leather (PVC leather)
More information on what these two faux leathers compose of …
Polyurethane Faux Leather (also known as Plastic Leather)
Made by applying a polyurethane finish (essentially a plastic layer) to a fabric base layer/material.
The base layer can typically be polyester, but may also be cotton, nylon, rayon, or shredded leather.
A roller or similar treatment then goes over the top layer to give it a real leather look.
PVC Faux Leather
PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride.
PVC faux lather is made in a similar way to polyurethane faux leather, and essentially the same backing material fibres can be used (with polyester being common again), except the backing material is coated with a vinyl top layer instead.
PVC is made by combining polyvinyl chloride (PVC) with stabilizers (for protection), plasticizers (also know as phthalic acid, and plasticizers are used to soften), and lubricants (for flexibility).
Which Faux Leather Is Most Common?
From an economics perspective …
Between these two main forms of faux leather, PU synthetic leather currently makes up the largest market share (by dollar value) of all synthetic leathers, and is forecast to continue this market share into the future.
PVC leather is in second by a reasonable margin.
From a practicality perspective …
Polyurethane is currently more popular for use [in faux leathers] than PVC (wikipedia.org)
PVC is less popular now due to concerns over the last few years about production challenges, because they release dioxins (potentially hazardous chemicals) if burnt, and because of increasing worries about phthalates, which is a plasticizer that can leach out into the environment (and can be toxic, depending on the type of phthalate used).
Differences Between Polyurethane & PVC Faux Leather
PU fabric is softer, more flexible, and breathable, so it’s more commonly used for … surfaces that come into direct contact with skin …
Vinyl is not as breathable as PU, but this is often ideal for products that need to repel moisture such as book bindings or cases for electronic devices.
[The mitchellfauxleathers.com resource goes further into the differences between the different synthetic leather materials and their traits and characteristics.
In general they mention that ‘[PVC is easy to clean and maintain, but may crack with extended use]’]
From sewguide.com: [PVC is non porous, whereas polyurethane leather is more breathable than PVC leather]
A Third Type Of Synthetic/Non Natural Faux Leather
Beyond polyurethane and PVC faux leathers, silicone faux leather is a third type of synthetic faux leather that exists.
Although it’s much newer and isn’t used as widely at the moment.
[Silicone is reasonably new and was introduced in around 2010]
[There is also] Silicone [faux leather which] is suitable for virtually any application since it possess the advantages offered by both PU and Vinyl.
[Silicon faux leather is an organic polymer (compared inorganic polymers like PU and PVC), uses far less energy, does not use any solvents, uses very little water, and there’s] no VOC released and no air pollution
Plant Based Leathers, & Bio Leathers
Beyond synthetic/non natural faux leathers, plant based and bio based faux leathers exist.
Bio based faux leathers use natural or organic top layer materials instead of synthetic coverings like PU or vinyl.
Bio leathers can also be made from a range of different materials such as cork, barkcloth, glazed cotton, waxed cotton, and paper, just to name a few.
Cork for example is made from the bark of cork oak trees that has been compressed, instead of coming from petrochemicals like plastic does.
One drawback to bio based faux leathers right now though might be that they can still use plastic based polymers to bind them, and give them extra durability.
Examples Of Bio Based Faux Leathers
[Non plastic, bio based leathers have been developed, and they are] made from flax or cotton fibers, which are laminated together in layers using palm, corn, soybean or other plant oils …
[Unlike plastic leathers, bio based leathers might be] breathable.
… biofabricated leathers … are grown in a lab using animal-free collagen … that looks and feels like animal skins, without compromising the environment or animal welfare.
[But, the science behind this can be challenging]
As well as … synthetic materials, vegan leather can also be made from more natural resources, including pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, and recycled plastic
[Other animal substitutes can include] wine leather [as well as] mushroom, corn and mango [substitutes that] aren’t manufactured with the same toxic chemicals used in leather tanning
A Current Potential Downside To Bio Based Faux Leathers
There have recently been even more plant-based leather innovations, including textiles made from apple and pineapple waste and cactus fibres.
These still use plastic based polymers to bind them and make them more durable, but the manufacturers have all said they are working on ending this for a more eco-friendly alternative.
Carbon Footprint Of Faux Leather
Faux leather can have a reasonable carbon footprint when plastic like PU is used.
And, when comparing faux leather to real leather, several reports indicate that faux leather has a smaller carbon footprint than real leather coming from cows.
Even the tanning and manufacturing stage of real leather alone may have a larger carbon footprint per square meter of lather produced than faux leather. When the agricultural stage is added, the carbon footprint of real leather may far outweigh the footprint of faux leather.
Polyurethane Faux Leather Carbon Footprint
… a pound of polyurethane [used for PU faux leather] emits 3.7 lbs. of CO2 – slightly less than burning a gallon of gas (oecotextiles.wordpress.com)
Faux Leather vs Real Leather – Carbon Footprint
How Much Energy Does Faux Leather Use?
One source indicates that PVC faux leather uses large amounts of energy.
Although, we couldn’t find extensive data of energy use.
But, if energy use is related to the carbon footprint of faux leather, it might be assumed that faux leather uses less energy than real leather. But, this might depend on how energy intensive activities like mining and plastic production are.
Energy Required For PVC
PVC requires petroleum and large amounts of energy thus making it reliant on fossil fuels (wikipedia.org)
Water Footprint Of Faux Leather
Again, faux leather might come in with a lower footprint than real leather here.
Faux Leather vs Real Leather – Water Footprint
… faux leather doesn’t have as much of an impact on water scarcity as real leather (globalfashionagenda.com)
Chemicals Used To Make Faux Leathers
The production of synthetic faux leathers may use chemicals for:
– The production of top layer materials like plastic, and also backing materials like polyester
– To compress and/or adhere materials together
In the production of microfiber-based synthetics, textiles and polymers are often layered together and compressed several times through metal rollers, then submersed in a coagulation solution to solidify.
… [the] chemical process [used to make vegan leathers] requires excessive levels of toxic substances like dimethylformamide …
Impact Of Faux Leather On The Environment, Humans & Human Health, & Wildlife & Animals
PVC can have issues with dioxins, persistent organic pollutants, phthalates, and are made with plasticizers and other substances or additives. The burning of PVC, and the disposal of PVC in landfill sites may also contribute to air pollution, and soil pollution (as well as water pollution if chemicals leach)
Solvents can be used in polyurethane and they can have a toxic effect environmentally. Although PU overall might be more eco friendly than PVC (due to not porducing dioxins or needing as much plasticizers), PU is still a plastic and isn’t considered an eco friendly option in general
Plastics like polyurethane and PVC are not biodegradable, and some plastics may never fully decompose
Plastics like polyurethane and PVC may break down into micro plastics in the environment
It may be difficult to recycle or upcycle some faux leathers because of how they are put together
Several sources indicates that faux leather overall rates better than real leather across different environmental indicators. Having said this, life span of the product should be taken into account – if real leather lasts decades compared to faux leather lasting only a few years, the sustainability footprint averages out over a different number of years comparatively
[Plastic based faux leathers don’t fully biodegrade, and when they break down they produce micro fibres] (eluxemagazine.com)
Humans & Human Health
Phthalates in faux leather are said by some sources to potentially contribute to a range of human health issues
Dioxins released by faux leather may contribute to some human health issues
Chemical processes used to make vegan leathers are said by some sources to use chemicals that can be toxic to humans in some ways
[The break down of vegan leather] releases phthalates – initially added as a softening agent – which subsequently enter the food chain and the atmosphere.
Phthalates cause breathing problems, breast cancers, hormonal disruptions and birth defects.
… [the] chemical process [used to make vegan leathers] requires excessive levels of toxic substances like dimethylformamide, which has also been linked to cancer and birth defects, and acetic acid, high doses of which can damage skin and eyes
… the harsh reality is that most ‘vegan leather’ is far from an environmentally friendly alternative.
Unless it’s made from cork or recycled materials, saying it is so is nothing but pure greenwashing
… even the most adamant vegans need to consider this fact: the pollution caused by most ‘vegan leathers’ seems to hurt all other animals, including humans, in the long run.
[New plant based leather materials may help improve the sustainability and impact of vegan leather]
Animals & Wildlife
Chemicals used in faux leather, as well as dioxins, phlalates, micro plastics and other materials and toxins can get into the water and soil where wild life lives, and impact their health.
Other Notes On Polyurethane, PVC, & Faux Leather vs Real Leather Specifically
Polyurethane Faux Leather – Environmental Impact …
From vocativ.com, about Polyurethane Vegan Leather:
The main concern with polyurethane-based synthetic leather is that solvents are used.
The production process involves painting polyurethane in liquid form onto a fabric backing.
Making polyurethane into a liquid requires a solvent, and those can be highly toxic … newer waterborne coatings are better environmentally …
[But] the type of polyurethane used in a piece of clothing is only one part of the environmental equation. Its impact will also depend on the quality of the supply, the way it’s put onto fabric, and the sorts of chemistry used in every step of the manufacturing process. With so many steps, there is plenty of opportunity for bad things to happen.
[There is ultimately] no such thing as ‘eco friendly’ PU (eluxemagazine.com)
PU vs PVC Faux Leather – Environmental Impact …
Polyurethane is considered greener than Vinyl because it does not create dioxins.
PU resins are made of a softer polymer and therefore don’t need additional plasticizers
Faux Leather vs Real Leather – Environmental Impact …
… there’s reasonable ground to state that the environmental impact of producing vegan leather is lower than real leather.
[A 2018 sustainability report states] that the impact of vegan-leather production can be up to a third lower than real leather.
The ethicalgallery.com.au and globalfashionagenda.com listed resources both include a comparison of animal leather vs faux leather across different environmental indicators.
The globalfashionagenda.com source indicates that synthetic leather has a lower environmental impact per kg of material produced than cow leather, when considering chemistry, resource depletion, eutrophication, global warming, and water scarcity
You can refer to page 42 of the listed globalfashionagenda.com pdf report for more information.
PVC Faux Leather – Toxicity …
… the manufacture and incineration of PVC-based synthetics produce one of the most toxic chemicals known to man: dioxins.
Found in almost every single modern human’s body, dioxins promote developmental disturbances and increase cancer risks tenfold
PVC vs Polyurethane Faux Leather – Toxicity …
The PVC version of pleather is made from polyvinyl chloride … [which has been called by some organisations as] the “most damaging plastic on the planet,” because its production releases dioxins and persistent organic pollutants.
The polyurethane version doesn’t have quite the same toxicity problems as PVC
PVC Faux Leather – General Impact …
The production of the PVC used in the production of many artificial leathers requires a plasticizer called a phthalate to make it flexible and soft.
During the production process carcinogenic byproducts, dioxins, are produced which are toxic to humans and animals.
Dioxins remain in the environment long after PVC is manufactured.
When PVC ends up in a landfill it does not decompose like genuine leather and can release dangerous chemicals into the water and soil.
From vocativ.com, about PVC Vegan Leather:
[PVC has] production challenges and because they release dioxins, potentially hazardous chemicals, if burnt.
Increasing the worries are substances known as phthalates … which is a plasticizer that can leach out … and depending on the type of phthalate used, can be toxic
More Sustainable Or Eco Friendly Faux Leathers
There might be a few different ways to make faux leather more sustainable, such as using less PVC, upcycling plastic, and using more sustainable bio based faux leather materials.
New coatings for polyurethane can also be better environmentally.
[Some manufacturers are] also phasing out harmful PVC from their fashion goods
[Upcycling plastic might sometimes be an option]
[And, in terms of more sustainable faux leather materials …] there are few that beat the sustainability of those made from cork. Derived from the bark of cork oak trees, this material not only conserves forests, but biodegrades, too. It’s durable, waterproof, and no trees are harmed to make it.
From vocativ.com, about Polyurethane Vegan Leather:
… newer waterborne coatings [for polyurethane] are better environmentally
Practical Traits Of Faux Leather
It depends on the brand making the leather, and the type of leather.
However, faux leather in general might:
– Be cheaper, and sometimes lighter than real leather
– Be good at repelling liquids
– PVC faux leather might not have good breathability (and might not be used for surfaces that come in contact with the skin). This is because it’s not porous and does not allow air to pass through. PVC leather might not require a lot of maintenance though, and can be wiped clean fairly easily
– Polyurethane [faux leather] is usually machine washable and can be dry cleaned. It’s also slightly breathable, softer, and more flexible (oecotextiles.wordpress.com)
sewguide.com and mitchellfauxleathers.com list more of the traits, properties and uses of faux leathers
There are more traits than just the ones listed above, and obviously traits depend on the leather in question.
Economic Impact Of Faux Leather
Faux leather is worth billions to the world economy.
PU faux leather currently holds the biggest market share by far (in dollar value) of any faux leather, with PVC in distant second.
Value Of The Synthetic Leather Industry
The global synthetic leather market size was valued at USD 31.4 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.8% from 2021 to 2028
[According to a chart by grandviewresearch.com, PU synthetic leather has the biggest market share, followed by PVC synthetic leather, and bio based leathers are in third]
Polyurethane vs PVC Leather Cost
Polyurethane costs less than real leather but it is more expensive to produce than Vinyl (mitchellfauxleathers.com)
Real Leather vs Faux Leather Comparison