This is a comparison guide between real leather and faux leather (also referred to as fake leather, or vegan leather).
Below we’ve outlined the differences between the two materials, which one might be better as a product (based on features and qualities), and which one might be more ethical according to different measures.
Summary – Real Leather vs Faux Leather Comparison: Differences, Which Is Better, & Which Is More Ethical?
We’ve already put together individual guides on the eco friendliness, sustainability and animal friendliness of each material, which you can read here:
But, as a summary of each material:
The main difference between the two materials is
Real leather comes from animals – mainly cows (but, other animals are used too)
Whereas faux leather comes mainly from non animal products – mainly petrochemicals like oil used to make plastic coverings on a fabric backing [although bio based faux leathers are starting to be developed]
Which Is More Ethical?
It depends how you define ethical:
In terms of animal friendliness – faux leather is the more animal friendly material if measuring direct impact.
In terms of eco friendliness – a major report says 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
In terms of overall sustainability – probably faux leather, but it’s definitely not a perfect solution right now.
Some animal based conventional leathers are actually sourced responsibly, and have relatively sustainable sourcing and production processes that even have the ability to support small local communities in some regions.
So, it can depend on the type of leather, and who it’s made by + where it’s made.
Which Is Better Overall?
You’d probably choose faux leather if you don’t want your leather to be made using animal products.
Faux leather also has some other potential advantages you might be looking for such as the ability to be modified with manufacturing technology, and potentially being cheaper, as well as not needing the maintenance and upkeep that real leather might need.
Faux leather is also generally lightweight, and durable.
If bio based faux leather develops further in the future, or if you are OK with current bio based leathers like cork – faux leather may also be an option for you.
You’d probably choose real leather if you don’t want your leather being made from petrochemicals.
Real leather may also be more porous and absorbent than faux leather, be better with sweating and regular contact with the skin, and also has the genuine leather look at feel that some people prefer.
Some leathers are also responsibly and sustainably sourced and produced, and support local habitats and populations – so, this may be a priority for some people.
Which leather is better though really can come down to individual variables and factors such as where the leather is made, how it’s made, which company sources, supplies and produces it, what the leather is being made for, how the leather is used by the consumer, and how the leather is disposed of or recycled once used.
So, this guide is a generalisation only.
Some More Considerations For Real Leather vs Faux Leather
Is made from a whole range of animals
Cows are the main animal that supply majority of the skin/hide for leathers worldwide
Leather is mainly a co-product that comes from the raising of cows primarily for beef and milk
Some animals are raised and slaughtered commercially specifically for their skin to make leather – especially some animals used for luxury leather
Different farms and slaughterhouses will have different standards and processes for how they treat their animals – some animals are still subjected to painful agricultural procedures, or prolonged deaths
The growing of animal feed and the raising of livestock on farms has it’s own set of environmental, sustainability and animal welfare issues
Leather tanneries, and the dying and finishing of leather have their own set of environmental and human health (through exposure to heavy chemicals) issues
Real animal hides can’t be modified with technology as well as faux leather materials can be
Real leather tends to be more expensive, needs an upkeep routine, more absorbent, and has a different look and feel to faux leather
Real leather might decompose better than faux leather
Real leather can be recycled in some instances
There’s now a range of more responsible, eco friendly and sustainable ways to source and produce real leather
Is made from non animal products
Usually has a plastic covering on a fabric backing (such as polyester – which is a synthetic fibre also made from petrochemicals)
Main type of faux leather is polyurethane, with another being PVC
Both these materials are plastics that come from non renewable petrochemicals – mainly oil
The production of PVC in particular has some eco friendly, sustainability and human health concerns associated with it – specifically with the carcinogenic byproducts and dioxins that are produced
But, all plastics generally have a production process that involves additives and other chemicals
Being a plastic, there are biodegradability concerns with faux leather, and also the ability for it to break down into smaller micro plastics
Faux leather may not be able to be easily recycled either
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 and lighter, and perhaps not require the upkeep that real leather does. But, faux leather tends not to be a very breathable material
Is far more customisable and modifiable than real leather with it’s appearance, design, features and qualities. So, the range of faux leathers available is very wide because of this, and can be used for a wide range of products and uses
What faux leather feel like, looks like, and it’s final product traits can depend on what it’s being made for, and with what technology