Faux leather is a material that can be used for textiles, and is one alternative to conventional leather.
In this guide, we provide an overview of whether faux leather/pleather might be eco friendly, sustainable and animal friendly.
Some people may be interested in how regular leather rates, so, you can read a guide on the sustainability of conventional leather here as a comparison
Summary – Is Faux Leather/Pleather Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Animal Friendly?
Although faux leather has some advantages over conventional leather, it is by no means a perfect alternative.
The main difference with faux leather/pleather compared to conventional leather is that it isn’t sourced from animals or animal by-products.
This gives faux leather a tick for animal friendliness.
However, faux leather is mainly sourced from mined and non renewable petrochemicals (usually oil), which means that it’s sustainability and eco friendliness comes into question.
Being a plastic as well, faux leather may also take a long time to biodegrade, and may break off into tiny micro plastics.
From a product quality and performance perspective, faux leather can also have different traits than conventional leather.
One 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 (globalfashionagenda.com).
Some specific points about faux leather are:
Faux leather typically has either a Polyurethane, or a PVC plastic coating
Polyurethane is typically the most common
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) has been associated with the heavy release of dioxins and organic pollutants, with polyurethane have less toxicity
During the production process of PVC, a plasticizer is used in production called a phthalate to make PVC flexible and soft, and carcinogenic byproducts and dioxins are produced
PVC can also have decomposition issues in landfill
Faux leather also contains a fabric backing, which is typically polyester – a synthetic petrochemical based fibre. There’s also glues and adhesives to consider
There’s an energy and carbon footprint associated with the production of plastic coatings like polyurethane
Some sources indicate that faux leather doesn’t have as high of a water footprint at conventional leather (probably in part due to the fact that animal feed and animals don’t have to be raised)
Some other potentially more eco friendly and sustainable forms of faux leather can include cork leather, or barkcloth, glazed cotton, waxed cotton, and paper. Essentially, bio based faux leathers could be the eco friendly future of leather
Beyond the environment and how animal friendly faux leather might be, it has different traits as a textile to conventional leather – it can be cheaper, lighter, more durable (might not crack as easily) and might not decompose as quickly. It also tends not to be a breathable material
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
What Is Artificial Leather, & What Is It Used For?
Artificial leather is a material intended to substitute for leather in upholstery, clothing, footwear, and other uses where a leather-like finish is desired but the actual material is cost-prohibitive or unsuitable.
Artificial leather is marketed under many names, including “leatherette”, “faux leather”, “vegan leather”, “PU leather” and “pleather”.
What Is Faux Leather & Pleather Made Of?
[fake leather is] made from oil in the form of plastic – either PVC or polyurethane.
Pleather is simply a slang term for “plastic leather”, made by bonding the plastic to a fabric backing.
Types Of Faux Leather
Plastic/Polyurethane Faux Leather
Made from a plastic coating (usually a polyurethane) on a fibrous base layer (typically a polyester).
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
PVC Faux Leather
Is also made by covering a fabric base with a plastic.
The fabric can be made of natural or synthetic fiber which is then covered with a soft polyvinyl chloride (PVC) layer.
This is less popular now due to concerns over the last few years about … 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
Other less common Faux Leather types can include:
Cork leather is a natural-fiber alternative made from the bark of cork oak trees that has been compressed
Faux leather can also be made of barkcloth, glazed cotton, waxed cotton, and paper
– wikipedia.org, and vocativ.com
Polyurethane is currently more popular for use [in faux leathers] than PVC.
Carbon Footprint Of Faux Leather, & Energy Use
The polyurethane version [of faux leather has] plenty of CO2 is emitted during the production.
… producing a pound of polyurethane emits 3.7 lbs. of CO2 – slightly less than burning a gallon of gas.
Water Use Of Faux Leather
… faux leather doesn’t have as much of an impact on water scarcity as real leather
Environmental Pollution By Faux Leather, & Impact On Humans & Animals/Wildlife
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
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.
PVC requires petroleum and large amounts of energy thus making it reliant on fossil fuels.
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.
Differences In The Traits & Characteristics Of Conventional Leather, & Faux Leather Textiles
Differences between real leather and faux leather depend on the manufacturer and the type of leather.
But, some of the differences might be:
Faux leather can be:
Inexpensive compared to real leather
Lighter than real leather
Can be more durable that real leather
Doesn’t decompose as quickly as real leather in the environment
The PVC version does not breathe and can be very hard to clean – it’s not often used for surfaces that come in contact with the skin.
The polyurethane version is usually machine washable and can be dry cleaned. It’s also slightly breathable, softer, and more flexible.
[Pleather is] lighter than real leather … It doesn’t wrinkle. It travels really well. It’s waterproof, so if you wear it in the rain it completely repels water.
… unlike actual leather, the technology can be gamed to suit design strategies … It’s very hard to alter the surface of a cow
One disadvantage of plastic-coated artificial leather is that it is not porous and does not allow air to pass through; thus, sweat can accumulate if it is used for clothing, car seat coverings, etc.
One of its primary advantages, especially in cars, is that it requires little maintenance in comparison to leather, and does not crack or fade easily.
New Technology & Developments With Faux Leather
New technology and developments are always being research and explored with real leather and conventional faux leather alternatives:
[there is a] leather alternative [in development] which is entirely non-plastic, and bio-based: it’s made from flax or cotton fibers, which are laminated together in layers using palm, corn, soybean or other plant oils to create a leather-like material.
And unlike pleather – it’s breathable.
We’re seeing a third lane emerge [apart from real leather and plastic/PVC faux leather]: biofabricated leathers, which are grown in a lab using animal-free collagen … that looks and feels like animal skins, without compromising the environment or animal welfare. [but, in reality, bioleather and also bio fur is scientifically challenging]
What we do know for sure is that cheap, disposable clothing (and our habit of buying and throwing out so much of it) is wreaking havoc on the environment, so choosing high-quality pieces that will hold up over time, shopping vintage where possible and making conscientious choices about your wardrobe is always a step in the right direction.
A fermentation method of making collagen, the main chemical in real leather, is under development.
Cradle To Grave Environmental Impact Of Faux Leather
You can find a cradle to the grave environmental impact of faux leather and other materials at:
Environmental impact of animal leather vs faux leather (ethicalgallery.com.au)
Environmental impact of different fashion materials (globalfashionagenda.com) (page 42 for example shows that cow leather has a higher environmental impact than synthetic leather per kg of material produced, when considering chemistry, resource depletion, eutrophication, global warming, and water scarcity)
More Ethical Forms Of Real Leather Are Becoming Available
[some sustainable fashion advocates choose] animal by-product furs over synthetics because of the environmental impact of the latter, [but] the trade-off is that they aren’t cruelty-free].
[one brand uses] Kudu skins produced from government-regulated culling, locally-sourced rabbit and springbok in Kenya and South Africa, and vegetable dyes.
Real Leather vs Faux Leather: Comparison