Leather vs Vegan Leather: Origins, Characteristics, and Environmental Impact

Decoding Leather: Origins, Characteristics, and Sustainability in Leather and Vegan Alternatives


We often hear about "Faux Leather" or "Vegan Leather" as the sustainable version of real leather. But what is the origin of all these materials and what distinguishes the various types? Let's find out together.

Decoding Leather Label: Unraveling the Truth Behind Animal-Free Alternatives

Leather is a by-product of the meat industry and is always sourced from animal skins. It is a waste material that would otherwise be incinerated.

Technically, materials that are not sourced from animals cannot be called leather. In some European countries, such as Italy and France, it is forbidden to call these materials leather.

Because of the association of the word "leather" with a good quality product, and the well-known appearance of leather, the producers of imitation leather materials and the brands that use them often call these materials "vegan leather" improperly. However, this material is properly called plastic 95% of the time. Both leather and plastic can be good or bad for the environment and people.

Leather properties

Leather is a durable material that is best suited for timeless products. It generally has a luxurious appearance and becomes even better with time due to its good ageing properties. When a leather product breaks, it can often be repaired, extending the life of the product.

The unique properties of leather are due to the presence of collagen in its structure. Fibres and collagen give leather strength and flexibility.

Leather is a very versatile material. It can be thinned to the desired thickness for different operations, such as folding edges or overlapping materials. It can also undergo various mechanical (pulling, folding, etc.) and thermal processes (such as the vulcanization process for shoes) without losing its characteristics.

Leather can be biodegradable, but it must be tanned properly using good chemical products or organic tanning agents, such as vegetable tanning. Some innovative tanning methods that can produce biodegradable leather include OlivenLederZeology and Ecotan.

If you are looking for biodegradable leather, you need to make sure that the finishing of the leather is also made with biodegradable ingredients.

Read more about leather properties and the "Reasons Why Leather Can Be Sustainable".

Because the supply chain of leather production is very long (cattle breeding, tanning process, finishing process), the environmental impact of leather is quite high compared to alternative materials.

Vegan Material properties

Vegan "leather" is a material that does not contain animal skin or any other animal derivatives. It is mostly made of polymers such as polyurethane or PVC, which are plastics.

Like all plastics, vegan material has a very efficient production process that requires a small amount of resources. In the past 15 years, there has been a lot of research and innovation in this area, which has greatly improved the aesthetic of vegan material

Today, even leather experts can be fooled by vegan "leather", especially when it is used in a product with a microfiber backing. This is also because many brands are downgrading the quality of their leather in order to be more competitive in terms of price. They are adding heavy chemical finishing to the top of the leather giving a plastic look similar to Polyurethane.

Vegan "leather" is typically made with a backing material such as polyester, viscose, microfiber, or cotton. On top of this backing, a layer of polyurethane or PVC is applied.

These synthetic materials are very efficient to use when making products because they are delivered in rolls of 145/150 cm and they have no direct. This means that it is easy to cut the pattern with very little waste and high efficiency. Sometimes factories cut the material as a “mattress” (more layers overlapping) to be more efficient.

Vegan leather is also very easy to clean, but it is not possible to repair once it breaks. It does not have the same durability as leather and is more delicate with mechanical and thermal operations because it does not have the same collagen and fibre structure. This makes it more suitable for use in bags and garments than in shoes, which have a more complex and technical production process.

Being a plastic, vegan leather is not really considered sustainable. However, in recent years, several new technologies have been developed that have a better impact on the environment, and sometimes even a positive impact. For example:

  • Bio PU: Bio-polyurethane, where the PU layer is not 100% petroleum-based but has about 40-50% bio-based content. The most popular bio-based materials are corncactus, grapes, and apples. The last three are waste products from other industries, which help to solve a problem.
  • 100% bio-based materials: These materials are made without using petroleum but still imitate leather. The composition of these materials is not yet disclosed 100%, but they are more expensive and not easy to scale up. This is also because their appearance is not yet as commercial or high-quality as leather. The most popular one on the market is Mirum but Hyphalite is a good competitor at a better price point, albeit with a more nubuck-like effect.
  • Mycelium: Mycelium is the root of the mushroom and can be used to make a leather-like material. You may have heard a lot about it in the news in recent years, but it is still far from being scaled up. The most interesting and advanced projects are Ephea which was shown on the Balenciaga runway in 2022, and Mycoworks, which is featured by Hermès. Both of these materials are not 100% bio-based, but they have a top finish that helps to give them a good aesthetic and improve their physical characteristics, such as water resistance and durability.


The latest experiments, still in the lab stage, are materials made from bacteria. The most popular ingredient is kombucha tea with Bucha Bio and the new Japanese experiment Pelliqua.

Explore more about vegan material evolution

How to use leather versus vegan leather?

If you are looking for a good quality, long-lasting product and believe that sustainability means durability, measuring the impact per wear, leather should be your preferred material, especially for shoes.

Synthetic materials are more indicated for seasonal products, the ones that you don't want to use again next season and when you need to keep the price of your product under control.

If your customer is vegan and you can't use leather but want to keep the sustainability level of your product high, you should try biobased polyurethane or even better the 100% biobased materials, or mycelium.

For those materials, make sure you test them in advance, especially the most innovative ones. Make a product, wear it, and see if it really works, especially if you are making shoes.

Always be careful about the marketing story and make sure it is all backed up by certifications.

You should also be careful when selecting materials from some startups promoting "innovative solutions." Most of the time, they are very good at getting on the news, but it is very difficult to scale up those projects because they are very expensive, while the average consumer doesn't always have an extra budget. The latest example is Mylo, an innovative material sponsored by Stella McCartney and Adidas, but which had to stop its journey due to financial reasons. More info here.

Published: 03/01/2024


Nicolò Giusti
Nicolò Giusti
BIO: Nicolò is an innovative and sustainable material specialist working in the fashion industry for more than 15 years. His passion for traditional materials but also for innovative solutions brought him to create the Sustainable Academy, a community that supports students, entrepreneurs and fashion companies to be more sustainable and avoid greenwashing.
"I really believe in the power of collaboration. Sharing and learning is the only way we can get to the next level. Why waste time protecting ourselves when we can use it to improve?"