Leather is one of the strongest, most tactile and versatile materials out there … but it comes with a lot of ethical and environmental baggage. Real leather is made from animals, and it takes a huge amount of water and harmful chemicals to make. Alternatives to genuine leather have some problems, too: pleather is derived from fossil fuels, and vegan leather uses a lot of chemical treatments in the tanning process. So which leather is best for your product line?.
It can be hard to pick a leather type that matches your brand’s values. That’s why, in this week’s guide, we’ll compare genuine leather to faux pleather and vegan leather. We’ll explain the manufacturing process and moral hazards of each leather type, so that you can pick the right option for your business.
Which leather is best: genuine, vegan or pleather?
When deciding whether to invest in genuine leather, vegan leather or PU leather (also known as pleather), you have to think carefully about the product you’re making, who you’re selling that product to and what you want your business to stand for. There is no one-size-fits-all ‘best’ leather choice — you have to pick the material that works best for the specific product you’re making, the priorities of your customer base and the values of your brand.
Vinyl-based faux leather (also known as pleather) is the cheapest leather alternative available. Vegan leather is the most ethical and environmental choice (although not by a lot), and genuine leather is best if you want a durable, breathable, premium material with a rich smell.
In reality, every leather option sits somewhere on a spectrum — there’s no one leather that’s perfectly environmentally friendly, nor is there one leather type that is always cheaper than any other. A lot of it depends on the manufacturer you work with and what you need the leather to do. In the next section of this guide, we’ll share a bit more information on how each leather type is made, and how it compares to alternatives.
Genuine Leather: pros and cons
Real leather (also known as genuine leather) is one of the oldest materials in the world … mankind has been making leather out of hides and skins for thousands of years. Genuine leather is a rich, luxurious, supple material that stands up to severe wear and tear, making it perfect for bags, harnesses, shoes and pet accessories (see our guide here). There are a few main ways in which it differs from the faux alternatives:
Only genuine leather develops a patina. If you like the way leather discolours over time, then you need genuine leather — nothing else is going to work for you.
Genuine leather is an animal product. It’s worth pointing out that animals aren’t bred and culled just to make leather: most of the time, the animal hides and skins used in the leather industry have been taken from animals that have already been slaughtered for their meat. The hides and skins are a waste product created by the world’s appetite for meat, not handbags. Either way, genuine leather still presents an ethical dilemma for animal lovers.
Genuine leather tanning uses lots of water and chemicals. The environmental impact of leather is significant. You need to make sure that you’re dealing with a sustainable, certified tannery. To make leather, animal hides and skins are first preserved in salt, then they’re ‘limed’ (the hides are bathed in lime to strip away any hair or membranes). The hides are then tanned at least twice(this is where the hides are bathed in a big vat of preservatives). At the very end of the process, the hides are dyed, and they may then be exposed to a final preservative, depending on the leather type. Every stage of this process uses a tremendous amount of water. There are also a lot of harmful chemicals involved, and these chemicals can cause pollution if they’re not handled correctly by the tannery (leather factory).
Genuine leather can last thousands of years. You can’t say the same thing about either plant-based or plastic-based leather alternatives, which have much shorter lifespans. The lifespan of genuine leather is one of the best things about it. As long as the owner of your product takes good care of the leather, polishing and treating it every so often, then that product should outlive its owner. Timeless designs can last generations — it’s the complete opposite of fast fashion. Over a long enough period of time, genuine leather is incredibly eco-friendly.
Plastic Leather (PU, leatherette or ‘Pleather’): pros and cons
Pleather (also known as PU leather or PVC leather) is the original ‘faux leather’. To make pleather, the factory takes a liquid vinyl solution and adds a range of special chemicals and dyes to form a huge vat of ‘liquid leather’. This liquid then gets poured onto a large roll of paper and baked in an oven, which — after a few other treatments and processes — comes out as a roll of ready-to-use faux leather. This process is a very quick and cheap way to ‘make leather’, but it comes with drawbacks:
Pleather has a short lifespan. You rarely get more than 10 years of use out of a piece of pleather before it starts to crack. You’ll often see this on cheap shoes and office chairs; the material cracks at the seams and stress points, leaving you with brittle, crumbling corners.
Pleather is not always vegan. Before plant-based leather went mainstream, the only way for fashionistas to get meat-free leather was to choose a plastic alternative. Nowadays, some faux leathers will blend real leather byproducts with polyurethane to deliver a slightly richer finish. This is a big problem if you’re trying to avoid using any animal products. You need to find 100% PU leather, and you should always double-check with your wholesaler, if you’re trying to avoid animal products completely.
Pleather doesn’t smell great. For a lot of customers, the best thing about leather is the smell, which mainly comes from the tanning process. Leatherette isn’t tanned — it’s mixed and baked — so it doesn’t have any of that lovely smell. In fact, it can sometimes give off a nasty plasticky stink. The best you can hope for with pleather is a neutral smell.
Pleather is consistent. Pleather is made in a factory according to exacting standards. The colour, thickness, pattern and sheen of any PU leather that you buy is tightly controlled. You don’t have to deal with any of the minor differences in shade, texture and pattern that come with using naturally-derived alternatives. If precision and uniformity are important to you, then pleather is hard to beat.
Pleather is cheap. If you’re still just learning how to work with leather, then pleather is the most cost effective way to practice your skills. Leatherette behaves a lot like genuine leather, so you can experiment and make mistakes for a fraction of the price of working on full tanned animal hides. It also keeps your manufacturing costs low, which is never a bad thing!
Pleather doesn’t absorb water. If you’re making something like a hospital chair or a bicycle seat, it’s probably a better choice than genuine leather. Just bear in mind that it does crack easily over time.
Pleather is hard to recycle. Even though it’s basically all plastic, PU leather can’t be melted down and reformed like a plastic drinks bottle. It has to go to landfill and takes generations to break down. The good news is that the eco-credentials of leatherette are improving all the time. Some new pleathers have been formulated to rot away after a few decades, and there are new ways to ‘mechanically recycle’ PU leather (mechanical recycling involves shredding and chipping materials for use in things like attic insulation and playground paving).
Vegan Leather: pros and cons
Vegan leather is a relatively new type of leather made entirely from plants. To make vegan leather, a factory takes a high-fibre plant, pulps it, and pours it into a rectangular mould. That pulp is then baked to form a sheet of raw vegan leather, which then gets tanned and treated in a similar way to genuine leather. Here’s a great video describing the process in more detail:
Vegan leather is an exciting material, but it’s not a perfect alternative to genuine leather. You need to be mindful of its pros and cons:
Vegan leather is the most ethical option out there. No animals need to die, and you don’t need to use up a lot of fossil fuels. Just be aware that there is still some pollution involved in making vegan leather, because it needs to be tanned with a lot of strong chemicals, just like real leather.
Vegan leather can be made from any fibrous plant. You can make vegan leather from any plant with a high fibre content. You can use mangoes, pineapple leaves, eucalyptus trees, sugar cane, or even grape skins and stalks from the wine industry. This is great news for the environment, because vegan leather’s raw materials don’t have to travel thousands of miles across the planet before getting turned into leather. It also produces lots of interesting finishes.
Vegan leather breathes like genuine leather. If you want to make heavy garments like coats and boots, vegan leather will be much more comfortable for the wearer over time than any pleather alternatives.
Vegan leather only lasts about 10 years. If you’re making products with a lifespan of around 10 years, then this isn’t an issue, but if you want to make timeless pieces that get passed down from one generation to another, vegan leather just isn’t up to it. It breaks down in a similar way to pleather.
Vegan leather can be carbon negative. This is the most exciting thing about vegan leather. Plants soak up carbon from the air as they grow, and they don’t release any methane (unlike cows, for instance). This means that, when you’re using plant-based leather, there’s a good chance that the material you’re working with has actually drawn carbon out of the atmosphere.
Vegan leather can look, feel and smell like the real thing. It all depends on the plant used to make the leather — some vegan leathers have a spackled surface or a felt-like depth — but if you want a vegan leather that looks exactly like the real thing, you can have it. What’s more, because vegan leather is tanned in the same way as genuine leather, it can smell just as rich and musky as the real thing. This is a real plus if you’re trying to sell tactile accessories like purses and phone wallets.
What leather do your customers want?
Leather has been around for at least 5,500 years (source: National Geographic). It is a material that transcends all cultures and passing fashions, and it’ll be around — in one form or another — for centuries to come. Don’t feel pressured into choosing one leather type over another if you don’t want to, but you should equally feel free to experiment and try out new ideas.
At the end of the day, we’re all in the people-pleasing business. You need to make products that your customers genuinely want. If your customers value luxury over cost, or economy over environment, then of course you need to factor that into your decision. Just remember that the leather production process is a mystery to most people, so you might need to educate your customers on why your business has chosen one type of leather over another.