Adopting a vegan lifestyle means much more than just excluding animal food. It means excluding all forms of animal exploitation, including products from industries like fashion or entertainment. In other words, if you’re vegan, you’ll want to avoid purchasing leather or wool, and perhaps even stop visiting zoos or aquariums.
A fabric referred to as “PU Leather” might confuse a lot of folks, and for some, it might hint at a combination of two materials: “polyurethane” and “leather”.
So, what is PU Leather, and is it vegan? 100% PU Leather is a synthetic material made entirely out of plastic and is therefore vegan. However, it’s still important to distinguish between PU Leather and other forms of leather because they may be mentioned interchangeably even though they’re different.
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I’ll explain what PU leather is and how it is made, and I’m also going to lay out the differences between PU leather and other forms of leather so that you can better differentiate between them. We’re also going to learn if PU Leather is, in fact, the best alternative to leather and whether more environmentally friendly solutions exist.
What Is PU Leather?
PU Leather, also known as synthetic leather, is an artificial fabric made from a thermoplastic polymer that is widely used in the making of furniture and shoes. Generally, PU Leather is completely artificial and considered vegan.
However, not all PU Leather is entirely that way. I’ve mentioned earlier that PU Leather and other forms of leather may be mentioned interchangeably, but it’s important to differentiate between them.
Plus, PU leather can go by different names, including:
- PU Leather
- Bicast Leather
- Split Leather
- Bonder Leather
- Reconstituted Leather
- and Corrected Grain Leather.
PU Leather is made of plastic, but other forms of PU Leather may contain leather. Take Bicast Leather, for instance — manufacturers take the fibrous part of the cow (after removing the genuine leather) and coat it with a layer of polyurethane, but it’s not vegan.
The other forms of PU Leather follow a similar pattern, in which the core material is animal-based but somewhere in the middle or end polyurethane was included. It’s important to tell 100% PU Leather apart from other forms of leather, otherwise, you might commit the mistake of purchasing an animal product.
How To Identify Vegan PU Leather
Identifying vegan PU Leather can be quite tricky if you’re going in store since you have to rely on the accuracy of the label, and if that’s not enough, you either need to question the store or be able to tell the fabric apart.
However, assuming the labels are accurate, look for products with labels indicating the product is 100% synthetic or 100% PU Leather.
Otherwise, look at the following differences to tell vegan PU leather and actual leather apart:
- PU Leather is usually very cheap;
- PU Leather will have a plastic or chemical smell to it that real leather will not have;
- PU Leather does not absorb water while real leather does.
With that being said, It’s not advisable to do a water test on a product that you don’t own, even though splashing a few droplets of water may be enough to tell you the difference. Although, it’s also true that some leather products may have a PU coating that keeps water out.
People familiar with these types of fabrics can usually tell fake and real leather apart, and what they say is that real leather will always have some imperfections and a genuine grain. Synthetic leather will have this perfect, patterned texture appearance.
Buying Vegan PU Leather Online
If you visit Amazon or any other retail website online, you can minimize the risk of buying a product with real leather by looking at the detailed descriptions listed by the brands.
Here is an example of a vegan PU leather bag:
Typically, for a vegan product, the brand will be interested in listing that the product is vegan. If you look at the title of a product, often you’ll find the keywords “vegan” or “faux leather” which are clear signals that a product doesn’t contain animal-based materials.
If you can’t find those keywords in the title, look at the description of the product.
A shortcut used to figure out if a product is vegan is by pressing CMD (or CTRL) + F, which will make a browser integrated search bar pop up, allowing you to more easily search for the keyword you want.
Looking for specific keywords like “vegan” or “faux leather” may not be the most foolproof way to find whether a specific product is made from vegan leather, but it’s certainly a good way to mitigate risk.
Some products may not have all the information you need, but in that case, you’ll want to either contact the seller (if you’re purchasing on Amazon) or the respective brand’s customer support.
Is PU Leather The Best Vegan Leather Alternative?
I believe we can boil this down to the individual and what you ultimately want from a product. If you want a cheap product, then PU leather is certainly the best alternative. If you want a product that is of the highest possible quality, then I’m afraid PU leather is not the way to go.
A few pros of getting PU leather:
- PU leather is significantly cheaper than other materials, with perhaps the exception of PVC
- PU leather doesn’t absorb water, which makes it easy to clean
- PU leather can be made in a variety of colors and styles
The cons of PU leather are:
- For people used to wearing real leather, it looks fake
- It’s not as breathable
- Can have a strong chemical smell
- Easily wears over time and can crack, which means it’s significantly less durable than real leather
- Can get punctured or tore more easily
Naturally, as vegans, the right choice is to avoid products that contain animal components, but products that are made from plastic can be harmful to the environment because they rarely are biodegradable.
Is PU Leather Bad For The Environment?
Polyurethane gets a lot of flak because it’s seen as equivalent to the same plastic found in the ocean.
However, it’s important to emphasize that not all plastic is created equal.
The plastic we often see in tragic photographs is called thermoplastic, which accounts for 95% of the waste seen in the oceans. Conversely, polyurethane plastics represent 2% of all waste detected in ocean surveys.
According to urethane manufacturers, the reason polyurethane represents so little waste is that it lasts longer and industries that use it do not frequently discard their products, which minimizes the amount of polyurethane joining the waste stream from the get-go.
Also, when polyurethane gets broken down in the environment, it splits into molecules referred to as inert compounds, which means they don’t react or accumulate toxicity in the natural environment.
The bigger issue with polyurethane is with the production process because it involves painting polyurethane in liquid form onto a fabric backing, and this requires highly toxic solvents. However, more recent versions of polyurethane use a waterborne coating that is more reliable.
Don’t Mistake PU with PVC
Keep in mind that Polyurethane and Polyvinyl chloride should not be regarded as the same. In production, PVC produces harmful dioxins and uses highly toxic chlorine, unlike polyurethane.
It has been considered by Greenpeace, the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic”, which is why it’s on its way out, especially in European countries, according to data by PlasticsEurope.
But if you want alternatives that are even more promising for the environment, check out the alternatives I’m going to mention below.
3 Vegan Alternatives to PU Leather
Also known as Pineapple Leather, Piñatex is a widely used alternative made from pineapple leaf fiber, which is an agricultural by-product of pineapple harvesting that is often burned or deemed as waste.
Piñatex is inspired by the “Circular Economy and Cradle to Cradle values“, so the company (behind Piñatex) considers the full life-cycle of the material, and wants to design products that are 100% beneficial to people and the environment.
While Piñatex is a very niche and sustainable material, it’s successfully made its way into big and small brands such as Hugo Boss, Po-Zu, Votch, and Nae.
Mushroom Leather or Muskin is a material made from the caps of a mushroom type called Phellinus ellipsoideus, that once extracted can be used and treated in the same way as animal leather but with natural techniques.
According to the online publication Lifesgate, Mushroom Leather is treated using eco-friendly products such as eco-wax, which provides the leather with its special attributes and characteristics.
Not only is Mushroom Leather a very sustainable material, but it is water-repellent, non-toxic, and is durable enough to create fashion items that are traditionally made of leather.
Out of the three alternatives, Biofabricated Leather is probably the least covered vegan leather alternative by the media and respective eco-friendly publications.
Their imitation leather is made from collagen, with no animal products or toxic chemicals. While Modern Meadow’s inventions aren’t quite accessible yet, they’re shaping the future of how products might be made.
According to their own words, Biofabricated Leather is: “Able to be any density. Hold to any mold. Create any shape. Take on any texture. Combine with any other material. Be any size, seamlessly. A liquid. A solid. An anomaly.”
These alternatives are very exciting, however, what remains to be an issue is their accessibility (i.e. shoes made from Piñatex are super expensive), and how scalable they can become.
Unfortunately, most of the companies using these types of leather alternatives are selling to a specific niche (or small group of specific individuals) which isn’t enough if the goal is to permanently stop using leather or other potentially toxic materials.
100% PU Leather is vegan because it’s entirely made from synthetic materials.
However, you still have to be careful because some companies may advertise a product as being made from PU leather, but it can be REAL leather coated with a layer of polyurethane. In these cases, the fabric should not be referred to as “PU Leather” but “Bicast Leather”.
Another thing to note is that PU (polyurethane) is not the same as PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which has a more dangerous impact on the environment and our health.
PU (polyurethane) may not be the perfect option, but it’s safer than PVC (polyvinyl chloride).
If you’re interested in alternatives to both PU and PVC, read a bit more about the three sustainable alternatives I’ve covered above.