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A Guide to Vegan Leather Alternatives


As vegan lifestyles become more popular, many brands look to remove animal products from their materials. We're asking: what alternatives are there to real leather, and are they really helping planet?
A Guide to Vegan Leather Alternatives

by Ellen Hill


Whether you are vegan, or not, you may have heard of vegan leather and be interested to know more. There are multiple ways brands can recreate leather without using animal products. We’re taking a look at vegan leather alternatives, how they are made, and why they can be great options.

what is leather?

What is real leather?

Leather is a durable, flexible material made from the skin and hides of animals. It is treated to prevent decay and can be dyed different colours for use in clothing, footwear, and home furnishings. Leather requires large amounts of chemicals and energy to be made into a fabric. It also requires animal products to be made which does not coincide with a vegan lifestyle and also requires large amounts of land for the animals for the leather trade. 

There are multiple leather alternatives available as vegan, animal-free substitutes which work just as well as real leather. The benefit is the reduced need for energy, water, and chemicals, as well as of course not needing to use animal skin to make them. As a vegan lifestyle becomes more popular, from food to makeup to clothing, the vegan leather industry is growing, estimated to be worth $85 billion by 2025. Many brands are taking steps to remove real leather from their products. Sustainable sneaker brands like 8000 Kicks use hemp to avoid using animal products, like leather, and high-impact materials in their sneakers. So we’re asking the question: what kinds of vegan leather alternatives are available?

vegan leather alternatives

Types of vegan leather alternatives

  • PU or PVC Leather
  • Microfibre leather
  • Cactus leather
  • Cork leather
  • Recycled rubber leather

PU or PVC Leather

You may have heard of vegan leather referred to as ‘pleather’ which means plastic leather. Although these leather alternatives are free from animal products, they are made from plastic and so the question as to their sustainability is raised. This pleather material is usually a blend of polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride, and is made by attaching the layer of plastic to a fabric backing.

The production of PU or PVC leather is thought to release harmful chemicals into the environment, and the resultant fabric does not biodegrade and therefore has a similar lasting effect as plastic products do. So, although animal rights activists and those searching for a vegan lifestyle might be happier choosing PU or PVC leather, it may not be as sustainable an option as possible. The production of PU and PVC leather is easier to produce because it uses fewer resources and it is cheaper to buy for consumers than leather goods. Although this material is vegan, it is less sustainable than leather alternatives made from plant materials. 

Microfibre leather

Microfibre leather is a type of polyurethane synthetic leather, also known as faux leather. It is a non-woven fabric coating made to replicate real leather without using animal products. Microfibre leather feels like real leather, is strong, with a breathability that doesn’t come with real leather. It is more eco-friendly than real leather and has the advantage of not needing animals to be made. It is known as the highest quality of synthetic faux leathers. It is, however, still considered to have a bigger negative impact than plant-based leather alternatives. 

Cactus Leather

One type of vegan leather alternative is cactus leather. A low-impact material made from cactus leaves. Cactus leaves are a great raw material because cactus plants don’t require large amounts of water to grow. 

Cactus leaves are harvested, cleaned, mashed, and dried before being processed, coloured using natural dyed, and turned into the fabric. Cactus material is sustainable because of how low impact cactus plants are. They do not require large amounts of water, or large areas of land like animal rearing animals for leather does. Cactus plants can grow in land that would not successfully grow other crops, so it’s a great use of normally inhospitable land. Cactus, as a plant, also absorbs carbon dioxide which offsets carbon produced in the production of the cactus leather. 

The cactus leather was first made by Mexican company Desserto. The aim was to offer cruelty-free, sustainable alternatives, without the use of toxic chemicals. The resulting cactus leather is partially biodegradable, organic, breathable, as soft as leather, and doesn’t require animals in order to be made.

Eco-friendly phone case brand, Wave Case, make a card holder out of vegan leather made from cactus. It is a sustainable, plastic free and low impact material alternative to a leather wallet.

cactus leather vegan alternative

Cork Leather

Cork is one of the most sustainable leather alternatives because it is a natural, recyclable product. It is sourced from cork oak trees found in Europe and Africa. Cork trees are harvested every 9 years and have a lifespan for over 200 years. The cork is naturally waterproof, durable, lightweight, and easy to maintain. 

Cork leather is made from the bark of the cork oak tree. The bark is stripped from trees that are around 25 years old, it is then left to dry out, before being steamed and boiled to become more elastic. The bark is cut into thin sheets and backed with fabric to be used in upholstery and clothing. Cork trees also absorb carbon dioxide from the air which is a great way to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Cork leather is eco-friendly, natural, sustainable, plant-based and cruelty-free. 

Vegan fashion collective, Immaculate Vegan, have a collection of vegan cork leather bags and accessories made of vegan cork leather from Portugal. 

vegan alternative cork leather

Recycled Rubber Leather

Recycled rubber is a great alternative to leather which requires no animal products and gives rubber a second chance at life. Recycled rubber leather is a good material to be used for more durable products like trainers and bags. Recycled rubber comes from reclaimed rubber from scrap materials like rubber tyres which are chopped into small pieces. This reclaimed rubber is given a second chance at life, repurposed, and it prevents it from sitting in landfill. The density of the resultant “leather” product makes it perfect for use in products such as handbags and shoes. 

recycled rubber leather

Vegan Leather for the Future

With these different vegan leather alternatives available, it’s becoming easier to avoid real leather products. From cactus leather to cork, to recycled rubber, vegan leather is becoming more popular and more available. More sustainable fashion brands are making the shift to remove real leather from their products and choose vegan alternatives. This makes the future of fashion more animal friendly and more sustainable as the reliance on real leather is reduced. Whether you’re looking to follow a more vegan lifestyle, or want to find out how to reduce your impact on the environment through your fashion choices, choosing products made from these vegan leather alternatives is a good place to start.