Be Careful with Your Vegan Leather: It’s Impact on Health and Environment Is Not Pretty may earn commission when you buy something through the links or banners on this page.

For people who don’t want to wear animal products, like real leather, vegan leather is a godsend and a safe substitute. Or, is it? Vegan leather might not involve animal cruelty, but is it actually safe for your health and environment? The verdict is out, and it’s not pretty.

What is vegan leather?

Vegan leather is synthetic, and it doesn’t use any animal products. Typically, vegan leather is made with a polyester (plastic) base, which is then coated with either polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or polyurethane. In short, vegan leather is nothing more – and nothing less – than plastic.

Manufacturers have worked for decades to create a product that looks and feels like real leather. And that’s quite a feat if you think about. It needs to absorb moisture and breathe – just like real leather. It has to have a soft, and flexible texture, just like leather.

And over the years, vegan leather has definitely come a long way. But it has come at a high cost, too.

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Dangers of polyester

Polyester is the most common fiber used in the clothing industry. In fact, it accounts for almost 50 percent of all the fiber produced in the world. That comes to about 63,000 million tonnes of polyester produced every single year.

A lot of the time, polyester is made from non-renewable resources and requires fossil fuel during the manufacturing process.

What makes polyester even worse – yes, it gets worse – is that each and every time polyester pieces are washed, microscopic fibers separate from the fiber and make their way to waterways, where they eventually pollute lakes, rivers, and oceans.

Dangers of PVC and polyurethane

Greenpeace doesn’t have very good things to say about PVC. According to this organization, PVC is the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic.” Ouch!

Why such a harsh critique of the key ingredient for vegan leather? During production, dioxins and chlorine are released into the atmosphere. Dioxins and chlorine are both endocrine disruptors.

This means, they disrupt the endocrine system, which governs all of the hormones in the body. Hormonal imbalance is to blame from cycle problems, period problems, and infertility.

But that’s not all. Dioxins can cause damage to both the immune system and nervous system. They can also damage the liver and irritate the skin. Oh, they increase the risk of cancer, too.

Fortunately, PVC isn’t used as frequently as it used to be, but it’s still something you can find in faux leather. And if you bought vegan leather pieces before 2013, the chances are, it’s made with toxic PVC.

Dangers of polyurethane

Now let’s move on to polyurethane (PU). Most of today’s vegan leather is made with PU rather than PVC. But what are the differences, and is it any better?

The good news is that PU is definitely not as toxic as PVC, but it really depends on the country where the vegan leather is made. If regulations aren’t strict enough, or if regulations aren’t adhered to, the manufacturing of PU can be dangerous to the environment, too.

What’s more, PU is made with fossil fuels, so it’s not exactly environmentally friendly, and it still has a long way to go.

Vegan leather and the plastic problem

Polyester, PVC and PU are all plastics. And plastics take a long time to break down – up to 500 years, and even longer in some cases.

You know that famous saying, “A diamond is forever”? Well, the more appropriate slogan should be, “Plastics are forever.” Because they sort of are.

So, that vegan leather handbag you have. That’s not going anywhere, anytime soon!

Unfortunately, with vegan leather and real leather, you’re between a rock and a hard place. On the one way, vegan leather allows you to wear leather products without harming animals.

But on the other hand, the production process and the aftermath of vegan leather causes damage to the environment, too.

Is it time to boycott all leather? Not necessarily. But it does mean we need to enjoy “leather” that doesn’t come from animals or plastics. Luckily, there are such things. Let’s take a look.

Cork leather

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Cork leather just might be the best alternative we have right now to both vegan and animal leathers. It’s a natural and sustainable material, sourced for the cork oak trees. Not only is it waterproof and tear-resistant, but it’s also remarkably durable and it’s pretty fashionable, too.

It has a natural vintage vibe. Plus, it’s super easy to clean and maintain. And in case you’re worried about any funky smells. Don’t be. It is odorless, too. And like animal leather, it is unique and has a distinct pattern, unlike fake vegan leather, which tends to be much too inform compared to animal leather.

Curious about what cork leather looks like for real? Check out Stella McCartney’s Beckett Speckled-Cork Shoulder Bag. Here she combines a sustainable leather with the trendy terrazzo design.


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Have you heard of Piñatex? Manufacturers take pineapple leaves, which are discarded in the harvesting process anyways, and turn them into a leather substitute that’s pretty amazing.

2017 Met Gala, Livia Firth flaunted a gorgeous silver gown made from Piñatex, believe it or not!

Waxed Cotton

This is a clever idea, but it’s nothing new. Back in the 1800s, people learned how to make vegan leather by soaking cotton in either beeswax or paraffin. Then, they weave the cotton fibers into a leather-like material.

The end result is a sharp, handsome material, like this Tourmaster Jacket by Belstaff.


Mushrooms are another plant that’s being used to create a beautiful leather product. Which mushroom? It’s called, phellinus ellipsoideus. The end result is a suede-like material.

Along with cork, pineapples, cotton, and mushrooms, other plant fibers are being used to make safe and sustainable vegan leathers that are actually good for you and the planet. These include paper, apple fibers, and teak leaves.

Vegan leather is essentially non-biodegradable plastic that essentially harms the planet and everyone on it. Luckily, there are lots of clever vegan leather alternatives that keep everyone safe and happy.

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