These past years have seen a huge increase in conscious consumerism as a way to curb the effects of human waste and pollution. Lifestyle choices like veganism and sustainability are on the minds of consumers more than ever before, with natural disasters from climate change looming. But with so much constantly changing information, it’s hard to know whether these lifestyle changes are actually having an impact. Well, we’re here to clear up one much-discussed question in the realm of conscious consumerism: what is vegan leather, and is it really better for the environment?
1. What is vegan leather?
Vegan leather, most simply, is a material made to mimic leather but isn’t made from cowhide.
Vegan leather can be made from plastic polymers, the two most common being polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). These two plastic polymers are favored because they can achieve a wrinkled texture like that of real leather and they are also the cheapest to make.
Vegan leather can also be made from natural materials like pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, and recycled plastic.
At Ekster, all vegan products use upcycled vegan leather made from polyvinyl butyral (or PVB) that is extracted from old car windshields.
2. How is vegan leather made?
Depending on the starting material, the process for making vegan leather can differ immensely. Regardless, it is a completely different process than treating real leather.
Faux leather (or viny) is usually made from PVC or PU. In this process, intense chemicals are used to soften the plastic. This plastic coating is then applied to fabric backing to create the final product.
While this type of faux leather doesn’t use animal products, it’s rarely considered to be vegan because of how incredibly pollutant it is. It was even described by Greenpeace as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic”.
Faux leather made from natural resources or upcycled materials is the only true vegan leather. With natural resources, pineapple and apple peels are broken down into fibers that are then used to create a mesh-like material that mimics leather on a molecular level.
At Ekster, our upcycled PVB vegan leather is made from the recycled windshields of end-of-life cars. This is one of the most sustainable ways to make vegan leather because it saves cars from the dump, where they would be incinerated or destroyed in an energy-costing and pollutant manner. Instead of using new natural materials to produce the leather, it instead uses would-be waste and makes it useful again.
3. Is vegan leather better for the environment?
When trying to decide whether a faux leather garment is more or less sustainable than the real deal, you need to look at the raw materials and manufacturing process. All vegan leather is not created equal.
As you can probably imagine, the faux leather you’ll see used in fast fashion is the cheapest material available and thus made from PVC or PU. While PU is slightly better than PVC, both are extremely pollutant to make and to dispose of. Faux leather that ends up in landfills takes over 500 years to break down and even when it does, it ends up as microplastics in oceans and other environments.
So while real leather causes pollutions and environmental decline because of land use for agricultural purposes, methane gas from animal populations, and the chemicals involved in industrial tanning operations, some “vegan” leathers can be just as bad.
Thankfully, there are some vegan leathers that are actually more sustainable than real leather. One such vegan leather is Ekster’s, made from upcycled car windshields. This manufacturing process actually helps reduce waste by saving cars from the junkyard, and avoids the more unsustainable aspects of real leather, like tanning, that can result in run-off chemicals polluting the environment.
4. Can vegan leather rival the real thing?
Whether vegan leather can compare to the real thing again depends entirely on the raw materials and manufacturing.
Cheap faux leather’s made from PVC or PU are likely to start pilling quickly after several uses, with pieces of the plastic coating ripping off.
While higher-quality PVC faux leather exists, and might even last you several years before falling apart, it’s smarted to invest in plant-based or upcycled vegan leathers if you’re looking for durability.
Ekster’s vegan leather is practically indistinguishable from the real thing, right down to the grain and buttery smooth finish. After years of testing and tweaking, the inventors of this technique have become able to create a vegan leather that not only looks and feels like the real thing but mimics it on a molecular level.
What’s more is that while looking exactly like the real thing, vegan leather is even easier to clean and care for, being slightly less porous and thus harder to stain.
The next time you’re looking to purchase a leather good, take a moment to investigate the manufacturing of whichever brand you’re considering.
If you’re going to go for vegan leather, make sure it’s made from sustainable PU, plant-based, or upcycled materials. If you’re going for real leather, then take a look at the company’s policies and where they source it from.
All Ekster’s real leather comes from ECCO, the global leader in sustainable and ethically sourced leather. Under their standard, all hides must be by-products of the meat industry and all by-product hides are sourced from ethical farms. In this sense, there are many real types of leather that are actually more sustainable than a faux option. Whatever your choice, make sure you’re informed and invest in companies that match your morals.