Stella McCartney, Jules Kae, Desserto, Fleather, Vaute Couture, John Bartlett, and others all feature beautiful designs that are made of vegan leather. Some companies even use plants (and Fleather uses temple flowers) to make these cruelty-free clothing items. What are the differences between real leather vs vegan leather, how is it made, what about endurance, quality, and prices? Let’s find out in this article.
Besides the fact that one is made of animal skin and the other is made of either PVC, recycled plastic, or plants, pineapple, cork, or flowers, some other contrasts are the following:
Leather Made From Animal Skin
- Comes from extreme cruelty
- Can be made to absorb water, resist water, or be completely waterproof
- Lasts long
- Heavy toxins are used to turn the animal skin into durable leather
- These toxins are damaging to the environment and have caused health problems for the workers
Leather Made from Plants, PU, or PVC
- Can be made in qualities and colors that animal leather can’t provide
- No toxic tanning process
- Lasts less long than animal leather
OK, vegan leather doesn’t last as long as real leather. Yes, it may show tears over the years, but I don’t see that as a strong argument to continue buying leather made from animal skin. The pros outweigh the cons for vegan leather, but for animal leather, the cons definitely outweigh the pros. So …
Let’s dive a little deeper.
How is Vegan Leather Made?
PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is a plastic that raises more questions about damage to the environment. The plastic coating has to be bonded to a fabric backing. Plasticides such as phthalates are used to make the material more flexible. Depending on the type, phthalates are very toxic.
The good news is that PVC is now in much less use than it used to be in the 60s or 70s.
PU (polyurethane) is another material that is used to produce leather. It is less damaging and constantly being developed to reduce its toxins.
As I mentioned before, many vegan companies are now producing leather that is made of natural ingredients, such as pineapple leaves, nopal (edible cactus), cork, kelp, and other incredible ingredients, involving an eco-friendly manufacturing process.
How is Animal Leather Made?
Animals that are used for leather are: cows, sheep, lambs, goats, pigs, ostriches, crocodiles, alligators, snakes; and other animals such as elephants, zebras, bison, kangaroos, and lizards are also killed for their skin.
When I lived in Germany, I saw lots of leather, in nearly every store, and the tag often stated: “made in India”. So, let’s have a look at that for a moment, just as an example.
Cows from India may be sacred, but traders still round them up for slaughter. Poor families find themselves forced to sell their beloved cow(s) because they can’t afford to take care of it anymore. They believe that their cows are going to a home where they can be better taken care of, but instead, these men take those cows on a grueling trip of 1 or 2 weeks to Pakistan where those animals can be legally killed.
It is illegal to kill a cow in India, so they have to take them over the border for that.
During that trip, the cows are given no food or water, and many fall over from exhaustion. To keep them going, the handlers throw chili powder into their eyes and break their tails, forcing them to walk. Have you ever had chili in your eyes? I have, and it is painful and long-lasting! The cow’s march is downright cruel, inhumane, and barbaric.
A death march
That is where natural leather comes from.
That doesn’t mean that it’s less cruel in other countries. In order to make the leather, an animal still has to be killed. The leather industry isn’t that much less cruel than the fur industry.
Animals are killed, and then skinned, but in some instances, they are skinned alive or when they are still in the throes of death. The way their lives end is unbelievably cruel and barbaric, and for me, that is enough reason for not buying leather at all.
Animals go through hell for a leather jacket.
Although the argument of PVC’s damage to the environment is a valid one, we also have to consider that we cannot allow abuse towards animals to save the environment. One is not more important than the other, both equally deserve our attention. I believe that we can be humane to both. We must be.
Of course, I care about the environment, but we must ask ourselves this question: Are we willing to pay for, sponsor extreme cruelty towards animals?
In 2018, 2.29 billion animals were killed for the leather industry … Only for the leather industry – this number doesn’t even include the billions of animals that are massacred for food.
The countries with the highest rates of animals killed for leather are China, followed by the US, and then Brazil. (numbers from 2018, source: panaprium.blogs)
Some tanning industries use vegetable tannins extracted from tree bark, combined with chromium. Other tanning agents are: formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, heavy oils, alum, and syntans. Formic acid is also used. The chrome that is included in the tanning process is extremely toxic and much of its waste is released into waterways, causing damage to the environment.
Chromium saturated wastewater is carcinogenic, causing serious harm to not only the ecosystem but also to the workers who handle the leather.
Formaldehyde and arsenic (used for leather finishing) cause health issues in the eyes, lungs, liver, kidneys, skin, and lymphatic system, and they are also considered carcinogens. (source: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
Workers face health problems such as occupational asthma, chronic and allergic bronchitis, pulmonary tuberculosis, and dermatitis. Leukemia cases were reported for workers in the leather shoe industries of Italy and Turkey in the 70s.
The debate goes back and forth. Stella McCartney has been attacked online for her faux leather’s ingredients, even though she went completely PVC-free in 2010, is using solar panels and LEDs in her stores, committed in 2018 to going plastic-free, and in 2021 she released the first-ever garments in mushroom leather.
Vegan leather looks cool, is fashionable, is constantly renovating itself, and using more natural and sustainable products. The argument to keep on using animal leather because vegan leather production is damaging to the environment doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
As we can see, the production of animal leather is not only detrimental to the environment but also to the worker’s health, not even mentioning the torture the animals go through in the process. All three mentioned issues are important.
Additionally, as a vegan, your carbon footprint is already drastically reduced, compared to non-vegan lifestyles.
Leather has never been a must-have for me, even before I was vegan. I think that it is nice, though, to have cruelty-free and even natural and sustainable alternatives.
Jules Kae is one example of beautiful vegan leather products. I’ll look at more companies in upcoming articles and share my thoughts here 🙂
Have you ever bought a vegan leather item, like a jacket, purse, belt? Do you know any other vegan clothing or leather companies? What would be your reason for dropping animal leather?
17 thoughts on “Real Leather vs Vegan Leather”
Banning animal cruelty should be worldwide. If animals need to be killed for whatever reason, it should be done humanely; it should be a global law not to make the animal suffer and heavy penalties should be in place.
I believe there are better ways to make accessories but what makes me so angry is that people continue to buy handbags that have been skinned from an animal with no regret because it makes them feel great having a handbag made from genuine cow skin.
This article (and topic for that matter), needs a hell of lot more eyes! If only people all over the world were aware of what really goes into making that high end, branded leather bag, shoe, or jacket that everyone can’t afford but still wants to flaunt! it just makes my heart break and fill with disgust. This is why I have gotten rid of all my “genuine leather” items from back in the day. Never again!
I am very selective with what I purchase now and I have been meaning to look into Jules Kae as I read great info of her vegan clothes on one of your previous reviews.
Have you heard of “Beyond Skin”? Apparently, they claim to be “genuinely NOT leather” and offer vegan products like really nice, posh looking shoes. They are UK based i think but quite famous in the celebrity world. I was wondering what you thought about them?
I hope that more people will become aware of the cruelty that goes into leather. I have heard of Beyond Skin, and they have beautiful products. I love their shoes!
It’s pretty nice to learn new stuff from you, especially for good things that vegan companies try their best to produce vegan products to save the planet. Although the PVC materials cannot make the product last longer than animal skin, I think it’s a perfect alternative for all fashionistas worldwide.
I haven’t purchased any vegan leather items, but the product photo of Jules Kae does get my attention. I will love to take a serious look at those vegan companies when my next shopping comes.
Thanks for sharing. It’s an interesting read. 🙂
Jules Kae has wonderful products, I really like her purses, jackets, and belts, nearly everything, 🙂
Thanks for stopping by!
I am truly happy I came across this article, even though it was at times heart-wrenching to read.
One thing is for sure, I can finally see why people should look at leather alternatives, such as vegan leather.
Animal cruelty of any kind and for any reason gets me teary-eyed. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.
It’s indeed heartbreaking to learn about this, it was the same for me, but on the other hand it is better to know so that we can make more compassionate choices.
Thank you for your comment!
Hi Christine, as an animal lover I’ve been vegetarian for many years. However, I must confess, I have bought leather jackets in the past. Animal cruelty is horrendous and having read this article it’s opened my eyes. I never realised that vegan leather existed, and love the idea of using pineapple leaves, and cactus to make faux leather! I’ll certainly look into this option when buying my next jacket. Thanks for sharing:)
I also love the pineapple and especially the cactus options. I will look into them and share more info about that soon 🙂
Thank you for your comment!
Very eye-opening article. It is so important to be aware of how the products we purchase are made.
That’s great to hear there are more environmentally friendly vegan leather options. It’s wild that products can be made from things like kelp or pineapple leaves!
Thanks for sharing some cruelty free leather options – that Jules Kae purse is so cute.
I agree, it’s important to be aware of how the products we buy are made. I also love the Jules Kae purse – her belts are cool too. 🙂
Thank you for your comment!
Hi Christine, I guess it won’t be a surprise to you, I love this article more than your other one. Natural materials to make bags and shoes seem great to me!
One of the reasons I dropped making ceramics is the use of heavy metals. Like the ones you mention in your article and copper, chromium, etc. The point is that natural materials to color fabrics are resulting in a more tonal shade.
I love those colors, yet often the fashion dictates saturated colors. Bright lime green, neon pink, and colors like those don’t come from a natural source. So I guess it’s not only the industry that needs to change, but we as consumers should think our choices through.
Which you promote! So that’s great.
I am highly interested in products that are made of natural materials, so if I run into some I’ll let you know. And to answer your question: I bought shoes a couple of years ago that were promoted as vegan shoes from the brand El Naturalista. I am not sure though if they are made of natural materials or of plastics!
Yes, let me know when you run into products that are made of natural materials.
As far as I know, El Naturalista uses raw, natural materials and is committed to sustainable development, so I think you’re good 🙂
It hadn’t even occurred to me that even in art toxic materials may be used. Thank you for telling me, so that I can make better choices when I buy art. I love ceramics, so aren’t there any ceramics that don’t use toxic substances?
Regarding your question about ceramics (sorry I didn’t read it until now): once it’s been in the kiln it’s not toxic. So you don’t have to worry about your porcelain cups and bowls!
And if you want to avoid the maker using toxic materials:
* unglazed clay is fine.
* a decoration of engobe (clay with a colour) depends on the colour. If it’s just a different kind of clay it’s OK, if oxides are used it depends on the kind of oxide.
* transparent glaze is just glass, so that’s fine as well.
The ceramics industry is aware of the possible problems, so there are decorating powders and glazes that are not toxic.
Oh, and I am glad Naturalista was a good choice. One pair is with a heel, which I don’t wear very often. The other pair is great and comfortable. 🙂
Thanks for the info, Hannie!
Wow, Christine, I know this because I am also very much in sustainability and sustainable products. I bought already years ago a vegan leather jacket, red; I still have it. Vegan leather is fashionable and classy.
There are, luckily, many companies that are producing sustainable products, like handbags and clothing. We all need to rethink our habits, mainly because the fashion industry lets their clothes be made in developing countries. This has to stop! Our greediness is responsible for this development, and we need to return to have fewer items, I think. Great article, and very sad!
I agree, vegan leather is very classy. They have some beautiful products. It is indeed great that more and more companies are making more sustainable products, and you’re very right: we need to rethink our habits, make more responsible choices.
Thank you for your comment!