So what is this alternative to traditional leather exactly— besides being cruelty-free and more sustainable, you probably already suspected: It isn’t leather at all! Synthetic leathers are most commonly made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU), which are plastic-based materials. Another term we may have heard before is “pleather,” which comes from the term plastic leather.
Synthetic leathers are made with several chemicals and a completely different industrial process to real leather. Binding together a plastic coating to a fabric backing is the most conventional way to make faux leather; the kinds of plastic used in these coatings differ, which defines whether or not it is eco friendly. These two commonly used synthetic materials have raised a few eyebrows when it comes to the dangers vegan leather poses to the environment. Although PVC is being used much less than it was in the 1960s and ’70s, some vegan leather composition can still be found. PVC releases dioxins, which are dangerous in confined spaces and especially hazardous if burnt. It also phthalates to make it more pliable. Phthalate can be incredibly toxic, with Greenpeace describing it as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic.” The more up-to-date and slightly less damaging plastic is polyurethane, which is continuously being developed to reduce its harmful effects, such as the hazardous toxins it releases during production.
Only a few kinds of vegan leathers are made from natural materials, like cork, kelp, apple peels, paper, waxed cotton, cold stone, tree bark, and many more. It’s an exciting time to have so many vegan leather materials emerge into the market, and many entrepreneurs are finding creative ways to bring sustainable leather alternatives to consumers. Stella McCartney is one of the designers on the growing list of those who feature only vegan leather in their collections.