Below we’ve put together a comparison guide between real leather (from animals), and faux leather.
In this guide we’ve outlined the key differences between the two materials, and have given an analysis of which one might be better across different indicators, with a key focus on sustainability, eco friendliness and the use of animals.
Summary – Real Leather vs Faux Leather Comparison: Differences, & Which Is Better?
The main difference between the two materials is:
– Real leather comes from animals (animal hides and skins are turned into leather)
– Faux leather doesn’t come from animals. It comes mainly from compounds derived from petrochemicals like oil, and usually involves adhering or application of plastics like polyurethane or PVC to a fabric backing (that might be polyester or another fibre/fabric)
Which Is Better?
It really depends on which indicator you are measuring ‘better’ with:
Faux leathers can be cheaper and more affordable than real leather.
High quality real leather might age better and last longer, whilst faux leather might offer a range of features depending on whether it’s polyurethane, PVC, silicone, or another type of leather such as a bio based faux leather.
– Eco Friendliness & Sustainability
Faux leather might rate well across several indicators during production.
And, some bio based faux leathers like cork faux leather may rate well compared to some plastic based synthetic faux leathers.
But, the lifespan of some high quality leathers might make it’s sustainability score better if it lasts decades, compared to a cheap faux leather that only lasts a few years.
Recycling of real leather may also impact the sustainability footprint.
There’s also the consideration that there’s no such thing as a fully eco friendly faux leather, and even bio based faux leathers currently still use polymers for bonding and durability.
– Animal Welfare
Faux leather might be directly more animal friendly as it doesn’t use animals for production.
But, there might be an indirect impact on wildlife with issues like the chemicals used, as well as pollution and release of chemicals and substances.
* This Guide Is A Generalisation Only
Which leather is better though really can come down to individual variables and factors to do with individual brands and products containing leather material.
These factors may include but aren’t limited to the type of leather, the thickness of the leather, where the leather is made, how it’s made, the sourcing of materials, the company supplying or producing materials or products along the supply and production chains, 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.
There can be tradeoffs to each individual leather product and material.
Real Leather vs Faux Leather: Features Of Each, & Differences
What They Are Made Of
Real leather is made from animal skins and hides, whereas faux leather doesn’t come from animals.
Faux leather is made of a plastic layer/material (like polyurethane, or PVC) adhered or applied to a fabric backing material, such as polyester (but can use other fibres and materials too).
Both plastic and polyester are derived from compounds of petrochemicals like petroleum.
Bio based faux leathers also exist, but they are not as commonly used as polyurethane and PVC synthetic faux leathers right now.
How They Are Made
Animal skins and hides are obtained mainly from farmed cattle, but can also be obtained from other farmed animals, and animal slaughtered for their skin and hides (and perhaps other products)
Animal skins and hides then need to be converted into leather so they don’t rot, and so they can become a stable and usable material.
To do this, they have to be prepared, processed and finished.
One of the major processes that real leather goes through is the tanning process, and tanning uses chemicals, as well as energy and water, and has a range of outputs such as waste water which can be discharged into the environment
Faux leather requires the production of polyurethane or PVC, fibres/fabrics, and then there’s the process of applying or adhering the top layer/material to the backing material.
The production of polyurethane and PVC both involve the production of polymers, and PVC in particular uses plasticisers, stabilisers and lubricants, in addition to polyvinyl chloride.
Some sources indicate that the manufacture of PVC uses a plasticizer, phthalate, to make PVC flexible and soft, and carcinogenic byproducts and dioxins might be produced or released as a result.
Polyurethane might be more green in some ways than PVC, but still uses solvents to turn the polyurethane into a liquid.
*The above descriptions are general descriptions only of how real leather and faux leather are made. Actual production processes may be different in some ways.
Not being made from animal skins and hides, faux leather may be more animal friendly in a direct sense compared to real leather.
But, faux leather may indirectly impact animals and wildlife with factors like dioxins, phthalates, micro plastics, and more.
Sustainability & Eco Friendliness
When including the agricultural stage, real leather might use more land, use more water, use more energy, have a bigger carbon footprint, have a much bigger land footprint, and use more chemicals than faux leather
Some sources indicate that the real leather production stage alone has a slightly bigger carbon footprint than faux leather’s entire lifecycle.
On the flip side, faux leather is made from non renewable petrochemicals, and plastics not only may never fully break down at the end of their lifecycle, but plastics can also break down into micro plastics.
So, neither real leather nor faux leather may be fully sustainable and eco friendly, but faux leather may come out ahead in some indicators.
Some other factors to consider when assessing the sustainability or eco friendliness of real leather and faux leather might be:
– How long the leather lasts
Real leather that lasts decades will have an opportunity to average out it’s sustainability footprint over a longer period than a faux leather that might last a much shorter period of time.
– Transparency and traceability
It helps to know what you are buying – where it’s sourced from (what farms or production facilities), how it’s been made (what processes it’s used), what it’s been made with (what chemicals, substances and materials), and more.
Some retailers might be transparent about only sourcing from producers who make their leather in more sustainable or animal friendly ways
– The type of leather
For example, when it comes to faux leather, polyurthan may be slightly more eco friendly in some ways than PVC, and silicone and even bio based organic faux leathers may be even more eco friendly again (but, no faux leather is currently perfect).
Additionally, real leather from cattle may have a different footprint to real leather from another animal.
– The thickness of the leather
Some reports indicate that some thicker leathers may use more energy and have a larger carbon footprint than some thinner leathers
– Production processes and sustainability measures used
There’s several sustainability measures that can be implemented by producers, retailers, consumers and waste managers to make real leather and faux leather more sustainable
We list these measures in each of our real leather and faux leather guides
As just a few examples at the production level, closed loop production, better management of waste water and other waste or emissions, using natural dyes and chemicals over heavier and more harmful synthetic chemicals, and sourcing from farms that use more animal friendly or sustainable farming practices, can all impact the sustainability footprint of leather.
– Different leather products from different brands and producers (and supply chains)
Each leather and faux leather product from different brands and producers has it’s own set of tradeoffs and factors to consider, and should be assessed differently.
Additionally, below we’ve gathered what a range of different sources say about the sustainability and eco friendliness of real leather and faux leather …
A report from globalfashionagenda.com indicates that ‘[synthetic leather has a] lower environmental impact per kg of material produced than cow leather [when considering a range of environmental impact indicators]’
harpersbazaar.com notes that: ‘… 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.
A report from collectivefashionjustice.org may indicate that:
… the processing/tanning stage of turning raw hide/skin into leather has a slightly higher carbon footprint than all of faux leather’s total supply chain combined [and] When the agricultural stage is added in, it increases to be roughly 7 times that of faux leather
When looking at cow skin leather’s carbon footprint, the agricultural stage might be responsible for the greatest share of that footprint by a significant amount (possibly to a 5:1:1 ratio when looking at the 3 stages of leather production according to one report)
A review from sciencedirectassets.com might indicate that ‘[the raw material extraction stage i.e. the agricultural and slaughterhouse stage, has the largest carbon footprint for finished real leather by far of any stage … and, thickness of bovine leather significantly impacts carbon footprint]’
A resource from vocativ.com may indicate that ‘[real leather] can last longer than faux leather and usually be recycled [and this may give it an edge in sustainability]’
fashionista.com indicates that ‘[Some sustainable fashion advocates choose] animal by-product furs over synthetics because of the environmental impact of the latter’
‘[Real leather sourced from] sustainable ranches [and that are] and tanned and dyed naturally [can be less environmentally damaging than most] vegan leathers
[And, unless is a cork or recycled vegan leather, most vegan leathers are far from eco friendly]
[Pollution from vegan leather can hurt animals and humans]
Faux leather might be cheaper to manufacture than real leather, and therefore can be a lower cost and more affordable material.
Wear & Tear, & Stain Resistance
Faux leather may withstand marks from scrapes better than some real leathers, and may be more stain resistant compared to real leather, because the plastic coating of a faux leather usually repels stains and isn’t as absorbent
There are however some real leathers with certain finishes that will better protect them from daily wear and tear.
Puncture & Tear Resistance
Faux leather is not puncture or tear resistant like high quality real leather
Durability, & Length Of Use
It’s a different story with high quality real leathers when looking at how long the leather will likely last at the usage stage before needing to be disposed of.
Real leather tends to be strong, in part because of the the composition of the animal hides used.
A high quality real leather might last much longer/have a longer lifespan.
A high quality leather product will likely maintain a level of product quality longer than the average faux leather product, and therefore may not need to be replaced as often/as quickly.
The average faux leather might delaminate, crack and peel far before a real leather.
The average high quality real leather could last decades, compared to just a few years for a cheaper low quality faux leather.
Faux leather might not develop the same luster and patina over time as real leather, and therefore, high quality real leathers may age much better than any faux leather
Faux leathers may be easier to maintain and clean than real leathers
Range Of Modification Options
Faux leathers can be modified in terms of their grain, color, textures and patterns perhaps better and to a wider scale of options than real leather, which might be limited by the animal skin or hide it is using.
This may allow designers more options, and consumers more options too
… unlike actual leather, the technology [for faux leather can be used to] suit design strategies … It’s very hard to alter the surface of a cow (thecut.com)
Ease To Work/Ease Of Modification
Faux leathers may be easier to cut, sew, blend other materials with, and ultimately craft and modify than real leathers
Consistency & Uniformity Of Appearance
Faux leather may have a more uniform/consistent appearance than some real leathers
This may show up in the evenness and symmetry of the grain and lines on the material
Thickness, & Weight
Some real leathers can be reasonably thick, whilst faux leathers can be made to be thinner than real leather
This thickness can also impact the weight of the materials – some faux leathers might feel much more lightweight, with some real leathers feeling heavier
The backings of the two different leathers can be different
Faux leather might not stretch like, or be as pliable as real leather
Aeration & Breathability
Faux leather might not breathe like real leather
Faux leather may sometimes have more of a ‘chemical’ or plastic smell than real leather
Both real leather and faux leather have the ability to be recycled, but there can be challenges with recycling each of them
Biodegradability, & Decomposition
Real leather can take a long time to decompose – some sources say 30 to 40 years, and other sources say it may never fully decompose
Faux leathers like polyurethane and PVC may never fully break down. Not only this, but plastics tend to break down into micro fibers, which spread into the environment
PVC in particular may release dioxins and organic pollutants as it breaks down, and may release dioxins when it’s incinerated
Polyurethane may be less toxic than PVC
11. https://pdf.sciencedirectassets.com/277910/1-s2.0-S1876610214X00184/1-s2.0-S1876610214028537/main.pdf (relevant search – ‘carbon footprint of leather’)