What is PU Leather: Synthetic Vegan Leather Explained

illustration of two women sewing

With the appetite for more environmentally friendly fashion on the rise, and companies attempting to meet it, vegan replacements are becoming increasingly popular. However, the big question is, are vegan-leather alternatives better for the environment than real leather?

More often than not, vegan leather s a marketing term used to market and sell synthetic leather, also known as pleather. It is not real leather. Vegetarian shoes and clothes are made using cotton or other plant-based materials that are more sustainable for the environment than petroleum-based materials like plastic, rubber, and vinyl.

Although plant-based leather alternatives are a healthier, more sustainable alternative to some leather products, TPR rubber, and polyurethane-based materials are some of the most toxic plastics produced. PVC is not environmentally friendly at all, in part due to manufacturing conditions which can be harmful to workers.

Eco-Friendly Vegan Leather Suppliers For Your Ethical Fashion Brand
Plant-based vegan leather is the newest sustainable trend in the fashion industry and is being used by big fashion houses in their clothing lines

Vegan alternatives made with synthetic materials may be less cruel than their animal skin counterparts, but they are still far from being environmentally friendly.

The Meaning of PU Leather

PU leather, or polyurethane leather, is a man-made leather material made of thermoplastic polymer that is used to make furniture and shoes. 100% PU leather is completely synthetic and is made without the use of animal hide, and is therefore considered vegan.

There are several methods to create the PU material, but the most frequent is to start with split leather and then combine it with polyurethane before applying it to a surface. Although PU leather and genuine leather aren't the same, there are several parallels between them.

After all, PU leather was designed to deceive your sense of sight and touch. That's why a lot of people who aren't experts in the field can be perplexed when trying to differentiate between the two.

The True Environmental Costs of PU Leather

Vegan leather can be made from more natural sources such as banana leaves, mushrooms, and cork. However, according to PETA, the most common vegan leather is formed from two distinct plastic polymers: polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Mushroom Fabric: Is Clothing Made From Mushrooms & Mycelium Cells The Future of Fashion?
New and innovative fabrics made from mushroom and mycelium cells have become the new trend in the quest to find sustainable fabric.

The first step in creating a leather-like fabric is to chemically treat polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride, which must be flexible enough to resemble leather: the former necessitates painting liquid polyurethane onto a fabric backing, which requires a hazardous solvent; the latter necessitates plasticizers such as phthalates, which are equally hazardous. Both spring from fossil fuels, which when burned produce ash, nitrogen, and carbon in the atmosphere, all of which contribute to acid rain (as well as a slew of other unfortunate side effects).

On top of that these faux leather alternatives are even less likely to be considered family heirlooms to be passed on through the generations and almost always end up in landfills where they take hundreds of years to biodegrade.

Sustainability Check: PU Leather V/S Natural Leather

The process of manufacturing leather is harmful to the environment in many ways. The industrial leather production process requires the use of hazardous chemicals that are toxic to humans, cause harm to workers at various stages of production, and contributes to air pollution.

It is estimated that 18 billion square feet of leather is produced every year worldwide. Animal rearing requires extensive amounts of land and water to live. As a result of this, leather products contain a large amount of embodied environmental impact. excessive waste is produced by farmers who raise livestock for their skin and by brands who discard unused and unsold leather.

Even If we try to resolve the problems associated with animal hide through innovative approaches in biotechnology, such as tissue engineering (to produce artificial skin), then shouldn't using the PU alternative be an even more sustainable option?

By measuring the impacts in terms of grams of CO2 equivalents per square meter of material used, the answer is that it does not matter whether we use natural or synthetic leather: the environmental costs are higher than most other materials. On average, we would need to use 12 square meters of PU leather to compensate for the environmental costs of one square meter of cotton or linen.

Even if our PU is made with 100% renewable electricity, it still has an environmental impact per square meter higher than any other fabric that we know of. As far as using recycled materials goes, the environmental costs are lower but still higher than for most other materials.

PU Vegan leather is not a natural alternative to traditional leather and carries with it the same environmental costs that come from its non-vegan counterparts.

Plant-Based Vegan Alternatives to PU Leather

Plant-based vegan leather is a more sustainable alternative to regular PU leather. As mentioned earlier, one of the key components in vegan leather is polyurethane, which is derived from crude oil and carries with it all the same environmental costs as regular PU leather.

Just as plant-based milk has been created as an alternative to cow's milk, there are now a handful of companies that are producing plant-based vegan leather, which is created using fabric made from either renewable or recycled materials or natural raw materials and plant-waste such as banana leaves and cactus. These fabrics are often blended with acrylic polymers to produce a vegan leather product similar in appearance and performance to PU.

Cactus Leather: The Complete Guide
Cactus leather is a great plant-based vegan leather alternative to traditional leather. We cover the basics of what it is & how it is made.

This material is generally partially biodegradable, recyclable, non-toxic, and free of hazardous chemicals. These vegan leather products do not contain polyurethane, which is the main cause of concern with regular PU leather. However, they are still an imperfect substitute to regular leather and more research and innovation are required to reduce their environmental cost and to enable manufacturing at scale.

Why is PU Leather Still In Use?

Despite its environmental impacts, PU leather is far more accessible and widely available as compared to plant-based alternatives. it is extremely durable and can stretch and recover quickly while maintaining its shape over time. It can also be manufactured to look like any other type of leather or fabric.

There are several options for vegan alternatives to PU leather that offer similar benefits without having such a high embodied cost. However, some of these materials are not readily available to manufacturers and consumers, while others are more expensive than PU leather due to the increased costs associated with their production.

Vegan alternatives will likely become more widely used in the coming years as sustainable technologies continue to improve and prices drop.