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Is Vegan Leather Ethical, Sustainable, And Eco-Friendly?

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Vegan leather is revolutionizing the fashion industry, with retailers and designers flocking to fill the demand for none animal-based products.

But is vegan leather ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly or are the marketing men just creating a new and very lucrative revenue stream? 

For example, 60 years ago, no one bought bottled water, but now it is a multi-billion dollar industry.

And this industry has a worldwide criminal record for plastic pollution!

So I ask the question; is vegan leather just another bottled water money-spinner.

Or is it the perfect material to replace animal-based leather?

Let’s find out.

is vegan leather Ethical?

What Is The Definition Of Vegan Leather?

Vegan leather – is a synthetic, plant-based, or human-made material constructed to look and behave like animal-based leather.


Is it ethical to claim a product is free from animal harm but the plastic content within it will eventually break down and poison plant and animal life?

True vegan leather – should contain no bovine hide, fur, skin, exotic skin, or any other animal-derived solvents, solutions, or fabrics.


Is All Vegan Leather Free From Animal Derivatives?

The term ‘vegan leather’ is used when describing materials that mimic the attributes of animal-based leather.

But true vegan leather should not contain any components derived from animals.

The words “derived from” are important here as it prohibits manufacturers from including any animal material within their products. 

This is a crucial element of wording as many types of glue, dyes, and solvents contain animal derivatives. 

And it is the exclusion of these animal-based derivatives that distinguish vegan leather from other fake leathers.  

leather-working vegan leather
Is Vegan Leather Ethical, Sustainable, And Eco-Friendly?

However, buyers beware as when it comes to fake leather, no manufacturer is legally obliged to disclose all the components within their products.

Nor are they bound to a single set of operating rules or guidelines.

Therefore, fake or ‘faux’ leather can be processed from a wide variety of materials, and these materials can include animal derivatives. 

Of course, it needs to conform to government standards, but there are many ways to achieve this.

Therefore it is best to only buy vegan leather from trusted sources who have had their products third-party verified. 

Is vegan leather ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly.?

What Materials Are True Vegan Leathers Made From?

True vegan leather can be broken down into two distinct categories:

  • Synthetic vegan leather
  • Natural vegan leather

Synthetic vegan leather

Synthetic vegan leather is made from petroleum-based materials (oil).

Is this vegan leather ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly?

These materials are generally polyvinylchloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU), or in other words, PLASTIC!

Now I am not into wearing plastics, and few people desire their fashion wardrobe to be classed as synthetic or plastic.

So to make this type of material more palatable to the paying public, it is marketed as vegan leather.

Other names for synthetic leather include pleather or fleather, PU leather, and leatherette.

Of all of these, only vegan leather, whose components can be verified; can be guaranteed not to incorporate any animal derivatives.

So long as the manufacturer submits to third-party testing.

Vegan Leather Containing Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

PVC is the most widely used synthetic in vegan leather.

Is this vegan leather ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly?

However, PVC is also the most toxic of all plastics and is incredibly hard to recycle.

There are also concerns about PVC because of production challenges and environmental impact.

In addition, when burned, PVC produces carbon monoxide, dioxins, and chlorinated furans.

Dioxins and dioxin-like compounds (DLCs) are a group of chemical compounds recognized as persistent environmental pollutants (POPs).

Burning PVC can also cause hydrochloric acid in your lungs and cause possible ulceration of your respiratory tract.

Furthermore, PVC is a rigid plastic and requires plasticizers such as phthalates to be added to make it flexible.

One such phthalate, Di (2-Ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), is an endocrine disruptor and can cause cancer.

It is also thought that some other phthalates may adversely affect reproduction or development in humans.

PVC could also contain traces of other chemicals, including bisphenol A (BPA). (BPA is another known endocrine disruptor).

Greenpeace calls PVC “the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics.”

Vegan Leather Containing Polyurethane (PU)

PU (polyurethane) is the most commonly used synthetic alternative to leather for footwear.

Is this vegan leather ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly?

It is also a highly contested product, as supporters will tell you that it is not plastic.

However, that depends upon the manufacturing process, so the distinction is largely semantics.

But apart from the questionable semantics, another concern is that various solvents are used when making polyurethane-based synthetic vegan leather.

These solvents are required to make the polyurethane into a liquid which is then painted onto fabric.

And these solvents are highly toxic and will eventually leach into the environment.

So Polyurethane (PU) may be a better choice, but it is still a synthetic, human-made material created from hazardous chemicals.

Is this vegan leather ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly?

One of these chemicals is dimethylformamide (DMF).

Dimethylformamide (DMF) is used in the production of PU material for footwear and has been associated with toxicity to humans.

Another negative factor against the use of (PU) is that it doesn’t age well and may only be serviceable for a couple of years.

Furthermore, burning (PU) releases harmful toxins, including carbon monoxide, into the atmosphere, requiring specific end-of-life measures.

Burning PU-based sealants and adhesives produce a yellow cloud of smoke and varying amounts of hydrogen cyanide and phosgene. 

This is why alternative materials must be considered, and the word vegan must not be abused.

“If we want to move towards a low-polluting, sustainable society, we need to get consumers to think about their purchases.”

– David Suzuki

Synthetic Vegan Leather Summary

The global synthetic leather market, which in 2019 was valued at $29.3 billion, is projected to reach $40.9 billion by 2027.

For me, that’s criminal, as it means those people who are refusing a plastic bag (a good thing IMO) are also unnecessarily fueling the plastics industry.

If it’s not acceptable to carry your shopping home in a plastic bag, why is it acceptable to wear it?

Is it solely because the manufacturers have prefixed it with the word vegan?

Think of the bottled water analogy, then consider what harm ‘synthetic leather’ plastic shoes will be doing over the next 60 years. 

pvc pollution from synthetic vegan leather
Is Vegan Leather Ethical, Sustainable, And Eco-Friendly?

In my opinion, calling something vegan is just an easy way to target and manipulate those with a kind heart.

If it’s labeled as synthetic or plastic, no one will buy it and it will stay on the shelf; however, labeling it as vegan gives it instant appeal.

Therefore the people who are using this term are not doing it for the right reasons.

But they are taking advantage of the name to make a fast buck and make name for themselves while also exploiting customer emotions.

Is Vegan Leather Ethical – The Hidden Environmental Cost Of Vegan Leather

Is Vegan Leather Cruelty Free?

There is a cost associated with making a fast buck and exploiting the goodwill of certain people.

A cost that will have to be paid by the environment and a devastating cost to the animals that the people buying vegan described products are trying to prevent.

So if you have an open mind, stop and think about these few short notes:

  • Synthetic vegan leather was created from fossil fuels dug up, transported, and refined at a great cost to the environment.
  • The refining of these fossil fuels was achieved at chemical plants making toxic chemicals for the production of plastics, and resulted in CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere. 

    Extra CO2 as part of the linear system.
  • The hazardous and toxic to life, chemicals are created and then used to form synthetic vegan leather.
  • Fake leathers (synthetic plastics) have a short usable life span and do not age or repair well.
  • The ultimate destruction of these plastics may take 500+ years and result in the creation of microplastics and chemical leaching.
  • Microplastics are ingested and hurt all animal life.
  • The leaching of hazardous chemicals is harmful to all organic life.

So synthetic vegan leather doesn’t minimize the harm to animals or help in resource sustainability; it just deflects it.

Furthermore, it directly feeds environmental harm and animal abuse in the long term.

Is this vegan leather ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly?

“We need to think of the future and the planet we are going to leave to our children and their children.”

– Kofi Annan

Therefore, in my opinion, the use of synthetic vegan leather is unethical, unsustainable, and not eco-friendly.

To grab some Eco-Friendly gift ideas just follow the link: Eco-Friendly Gifts

Is Natural Vegan Leather Ethical, sustainable And Eco-Friendly?

Natural Vegan Leather – New Discoveries And Innovations

Natural vegan leather is made from organic matter such as cork, fruit, coconut, corn, and even waste food.

There is also testing at the moment on lab-grown leather from DNA editing.

This editing will eventually grow collagen (the protein present within the skin), from yeast and the early lab results look positive.

This will be a great innovation for the vegan world as this will be true leather.

A beautiful thing as it will be grown without the involvement of animals.

Read all about this innovation here. Modern Meadow’s leather doesn’t grow on a cow.

I believe that this is an advancement, but it brings a whole new world of ethical conundrums.

For example, collagen-based leather is essentially real skin, so will this material encourage the wearing of actual dead animals?

By this, I mean, if you can’t distinguish the fake from the original, then will it encourage a black market in the skin trade?

The growing and processing of collagen-based leather may be expensive.  However, the illegal rearing and slaughtering of animals are not!

horse in cage
Is Vegan Leather Ethical, Sustainable, And Eco-Friendly?

It should also be noted that these innovations are all still in the development stages, and few of them have reached the marketplace.

And as such, and are not ready to replace the dominance of synthetic vegan leathers just yet.

That being said, and as stated, there are some natural vegan leathers out there.

In fact, several designers and manufacturers are racing to get ahead of the game and produce the world’s first truly sustainable vegan leather.

Plant-Based Vegan Leather Experimentation

Experimentation is occurring with biodegradable sources such as cork, paper, kelp, mushrooms, tree bark, food waste, recycled rubber, pineapple fibers, and even apples and kombucha tea!

But none of these materials can completely mimic the look, feel durability, and texture of the real thing. 

Moreover, they all suffer from using a percentage of synthetic material within their makeup, affecting their biodegradability.

One such alternative is Pinatex, which is made from pineapple waste and is becoming hugely popular in the fashion industry.

Pinatex looks like the perfect material on the surface as it states that it is 100% animal-free.

And to be honest, it does look good, even if the texture is a little off at the moment. (Personal taste).

On the downside, however, it is coated in a water-based PU resin which is petroleum-based and not biodegradable.

Furthermore, the substrate/base material is 20% PLA which has a very slow decomposition rate outside of a controlled environment.

PLA is a vegetable-based plastic made from corn starch and is often called biodegradable.

Plus, the vast majority of PLA plastics are discarded into the trash by consumers and end up on landfill sites.

In landfill, it can take an estimated 100 to 1000 years to decompose, and any PU chemicals present will leach.

I use Pinatex only as an example as they are very transparent about their materials. 

Which is a good thing, and I genuinely and unreservedly applaud them for it. 

But it must be recognized that virtually all-natural vegan leathers use PLAs and/or PU in their manufacture.

 (Apple leather by Frumat, for example, has 50% PU in it.)

Is this vegan leather ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly?

What Is PLA In Natural Vegan Leather?

Plastic is a petroleum-based product derived from fossil fuels, namely oil. Whereas PLA is bioplastic, meaning that its base was once organic.

As such, PLA should be a safer, cleaner, and a more sustainable material to work with.

Both materials, Plastic and PLA, are polymers but are processed in very different ways.

sugar cane harvest natural vegan leather
Is Vegan Leather Ethical, Sustainable, And Eco-Friendly?

PLA starting materials are harvested mainly from corn starch and sugar cane, both easily available crops worldwide.

In the laboratory, these materials are broken down into lactic acid and converted into monomers, then polymers, i.e., PLASTICS.

However, bioplastics are not as strong or as durable as petroleum-based plastics at this time.

This is why some manufacturers are still incorporating petroleum-based plastics into their vegan leathers.

Furthermore, to maintain structural integrity, at least 50% of the finished product is in the form of bioplastic.

And don’t let the name fool you.

Durable bioplastics need a very specific set of conditions to biodegrade, and these are not easily achieved.

That being said, PLAs do show promise, However, here are some of their moral and ethical drawbacks.

Is Vegan Leather Ethical – Ethical Considerations Of PLA-Based Plastics

  • The world’s population is rising, and manufacturing PLA requires a lot of base material, i.e., corn. Therefore is it ethical to produce vast amounts of corn for PLA-based plastics rather than feeding an increasing population?
  • Large crops of corn require vast amounts of land, water, pesticides, nutrients, human intervention, and possibly GMOs. Are we replacing one problem with several more, and are GMOs even ethical?
  • The large landmass required to grow extra crops may lead to an increase in deforestation.

    Even if you reduced the animal herds that supply meat, you would need even greater ground coverage for human food. This would cause the rapid extinction of many ecosystems.
  • PLA-based plastics are not strong and become brittle with age, requiring products to be wasted and replaced sooner. This excess wastage defeats the sustainability question.
  • A larger mass of PLA-based plastic waste would increase the opportunity for this waste to end up in our oceans. This would endanger all marine life and would defeat its original purpose.
  • Mixing PLA plastics with traditional plastics would contaminate the recycling process.

    Being chemically different from plastics marked #1 to #6, PLA-based plastics marked #7 should be properly separated before the recycling process begins.

     Please read my article, How To Reduce The Creation Of New Plastic (Recycling By Numbers) 1-7
  • Composting PLA-based plastic needs special conditions and specific commercial composting facilities, which are uncommon at this time.
  • PLA-based plastics placed in landfills can take up to 1,000 years to degrade. Plus,(at this time), natural vegan leather with PLA-based plastic can incorporate hazardous PU material.

Natural Vegan Leather Summary

The world of natural alternatives to leather is an exciting place to be if you are a vegan, with a future of lab-grown collagen to pineapple waste or even the bark from trees.

It would seem that innovation is the key to unlocking new and sustainable materials.

And to be honest, I only mentioned a few of the products in production here.

However, my research always led me back to the same point. And that is, all the variants of natural vegan leather require some sort of plastic additive.

This opens up the same ethical question that always seems to be on my mind.

Is this vegan leather ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly?

Or Are we just potentially saving the life of one animal in the present by creating microplastics and poisons that will kill all animals in the future?

what is vegan leather tree in a desert
Is Vegan Leather Ethical, Sustainable, And Eco-Friendly?

Poet and writer Melissa Kwasny argues,

“We should not replace natural materials with synthetics” in her book –

 Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear.

Is Vegan Leather Ethical, Sustainable, And Eco-Friendly?

I refer to an earlier question: Is vegan leather really the eco-friendly choice, or are the marketing men just creating a new and very lucrative revenue stream?

After all, the information contained within this article is freely available, but how much have the marketing men made you aware of?

Remember that the global synthetic leather market in 2019 was valued at $29.3 billion and is projected to reach $40.9 billion by 2027.

That’s a massive financial incentive to create a new material.


A material that is meant to mimic a perfect material that is already available. And more importantly, a material that would otherwise be wasted and is 100% organic.

60 years ago, the marketing men made bottled water popular by telling everyone that it was better than purified tap water.

However, no mention was made of the plastic component or the hidden dangers associated with it.

As a result of this hidden information, billions of plastic bottles are now polluting the planet.

And billions of dollars have since flowed into the marketing men’s hands whilst our ecology suffers.

So, ethically speaking, is it right to create a new synthetic material that will only mimic an organic material already on the planet?

Is it morally right to make a new synthetic material that may increase microplastic numbers that ultimately contaminate our world?

Presently, microplastic release, particularly through garment washing and wear, is one of the most dangerous environmental pollutants of our time.

Definitions of microplastics vary; however, most are classed as; –
plastics that are smaller than 5mm in length down to a few microns across.

Is Vegan Leather Ethical – Why Create A Fake Leather And Call It Leather?

what is vegan leather leather symbol not fake leather
Is Vegan Leather Ethical, Sustainable, And Eco-Friendly?

If We Hate Leather Why Do We Call The Alternative Leather?

True leather is a by-product of the meat industry, and the hide only represents 2% of the value of the animal.

Therefore contrary to belief, and clever marketing, the vast majority of animals are not slaughtered for the monetary value of their skins.

Those animals that are bred for skins are exotic, and those skins are easily identifiable.

Highly identifiable skins mean that they can be recognized as undesirable to the fashion industry, and the killing will stop.

Creating a new material almost indistinguishable from the original will only create a demand for the real thing.

For instance, Coca-Cola saw its sales increase when fake colas hit the markets. They even capitalized on this by bringing “the real thing” into their advertising slogans.

And herein lies the real question.

Why do we want to create fake leather and call it leather?

Does calling any fake leather material leather just encourage people to seek out the original material anyway?

Therefore, is it ethical to profiteer from the name or drive people towards the thing you are fighting against?

So the real question we should be asking, then, isn’t whether to buy real leather or faux leather; it’s whether to buy anything at all.

Mirum – A True Alternative To Real Leather

For an update concerning a new 100% natural, vegan, and cruelty-free alternative to leather, please read my article;

The New Vegan Leather 100% Plant 0% Plastic

Final Thoughts.

In considering a new ‘vegan’ material, you must consider its entire lifecycle.

  • Will its manufacture be at a cost to animal welfare?
  • How long will the product last?
  • When will I need to replace it?
  • How long will I use it?
  • Will I use it enough to justify its existence?
  • When I do dispose of it, what will happen to it?
  • Is it truly 100% biodegradable without specific conditions needing to be met?
  • Will there be a cost to animal welfare in the long term?
  • Am I swapping one evil for another in the name of fashion?

Then ask the question, Is this material ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly?

Certainly, a lot more than is it just fake, vegan, or organically-based in origin?

Or as Joshua Becker put it;

“The most environmentally friendly product is the one you didn’t buy.”

For more quotes like this please read my article: 77 Thought-Provoking Quotes About Ethical, Sustainable, And Fast Fashion

Foe quotes on integrity, ethics, and sustainability please follow the link: Quotes

A proud father of two boys, an amateur actor, and a green living enthusiast, Mark has been sharing hints, tips, and sustainable living content on his website Sustainability Dad since august 2019.

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