Polyurethane leather, also known as faux leather or pleather, is not considered sustainable due to its reliance on fossil fuels for production and its non-biodegradable nature, though it is often marketed as a more animal-friendly alternative to genuine leather.
However, compared to traditional PVC-based synthetic leathers, PU leather is less harmful to the environment as it does not use chlorine in its production, which can release dioxins.
Okay, let's face it! There is nothing so timeless as a classic leather jacket, and I believe it's one of the few fashion pieces that never seems to go out of style. While leather appears to be a hot trend for this fall, so is sustainable and ethical fashion, and we are starting to see more “sustainable” and vegan leather options pop up on the market.
If you are building an eco-friendly wardrobe like me, choosing between these options isn’t always straightforward. While we know that leather made from animals isn’t the most ethical option, we must remember that leather made from polyurethane is still plastic at the end of the day.
This begs the question, is polyurethane faux leather worse for the environment since it’s made from plastic, or is polyurethane leather the sustainable leather dupe we have all been searching for? Let’s find out!
What is Polyurethane Leather?
Before discussing whether PU leather is sustainable, we must back up a bit… What is polyurethane leather?
Unlike real leather, which comes from the hides of cattle and calves, PU leather is 100% man-made and comes from plastic polyurethane polymers. PU leather can be fully synthetic or partially synthetic (this is known as bi-cast leather).
A polyurethane finish is laminated on a base material like polyester, cotton, nylon, or rayon using a special solvent to make PU leather fabric. A roller is then applied to give the surface a texture that mimics the look and feel of genuine leather.
Similarly, PVC leather (vinyl leather) is polyvinyl chloride polymers coated on a fabric backing. While different in chemical composition, PU and PVC leather are considered vegan fabrics made from plastic.
The Rise of Polyurethane Faux Leather
Otto Bayer and his coworkers discovered polyurethanes in 1937 at IG Farben in Germany. At this time, most research went into turning the polymer into flexible foams and fibers that could be used for the coating of aircraft during World War II. The polymer was also made into rigid foams, gum rubbers, elastomers, and linear fibers in the following decades.
The PU-based fabric didn’t enter fashion until the 1960s with DuPont’s Spandex fiber renamed Lycra. Over time, more and more variations of polyurethane-based fabric became commercially available, and with the rise of vegan leather, so did PU leather.
Today, PU leather is the most popular vegan leather alternative for upholstery, accessories, clothing, and shoes since it’s easier and cheaper to produce than traditional leather (both characteristics that align with the fast fashion industry). However, PU leather is also extremely durable, flexible, waterproof, and can maintain its shape over a long period.
To put this newfound popularity into perspective, the synthetic leather market is currently valued at USD 35.4 Billion and is anticipated to reach USD 74.4 Billion by 2032. Next time you're out shopping and see a cute leather skirt or jacket, look at the tag - chances are it’s PU leather.
Polyurethane vs. Leather: A Comparative Analysis
Let's get down to business and compare polyurethane vs. leather! What are the environmental, ethical, and production differences between genuine leather and polyurethane?
To answer this question and determine if PU leather makes our list of environmentally friendly fabrics, we will break down the pros and cons of each material from a sustainability and functionality perspective.
To make traditional leather products, old-growth forests must be cut down and cleared to make room for cattle. This is a serious problem; 80% of all deforestation in the Amazon rainforest is tied to cattle ranching. This clear-cutting can have devastating impacts on the natural biodiversity and the native species in that area.
Since PU leather is made from plastic, it doesn’t directly contribute to the clear-cutting of forests.
A better option for land use and deforestation is Piñatex, a plant-based leather made from pineapple leaves. Piñatex only requires 16 square meters of pineapple-growing land for each meter of material.
Water and chemicals
Most leather is tanned using chemicals like chromium, formaldehyde, and arsenic. These chemicals are linked with serious human health problems but can also make their way into local waterways near tanneries and negatively impact the surrounding aquatic ecosystem.
Unlike real leather, polyurethane leather doesn't need to be tanned, but this doesn’t mean the process of creating PU leather is chemical-free!
During manufacturing, the leather's PU component and fabric backing undergo various chemical treatments to make the product more durable and water resistant. Where these chemicals go after treatment will depend on the environmental regulations where the material is manufactured.
Greenhouse gas emissions
According to Collective Fashion Justice, at least 66 kg of CO2e is emitted to produce just one typical pair of cow skin leather boots (that’s like charging 8,417 smartphones)!
Traditional leather has a significant carbon footprint since cattle release methane every time they breathe, pass gas and burp. This is VERY concerning since methane is a 25 times more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Between the methane production associated with cattle and the clear-cutting of native forests, leather's contribution to climate change is enormous. To put this into context, the FAO estimates that cattle rearing is responsible for 14.5 percent of annual emissions.
Since it’s made from petroleum-based products, producing PU leather creates greenhouse gas emissions. However, less emissions would be created when compared to traditional leath
Unfortunately, because of the exposure to toxic chemicals (known carcinogens), tannery workers have a higher risk of cancer.
Many tanneries operate in countries like India, where environmental regulations are more relaxed and worker rights are less protected.
Most PU leather is made in China, and workers may be exposed to chemicals (like solvents and adhesives) during production.
If worker safety measures aren’t implemented at that facility, workers might be at a higher risk of health problems in the future.
Depending on the farm and the animal welfare standards employed, raising calves for leather production can come with animal welfare issues, including calf separation and confinement, branding, and inhumane slaughtering practices.
Since PU leather is synthetic, it would not have a significant impact on the welfare of animals.
Is Polyurethane Leather Durable?
So, is polyurethane leather durable? Yup! However, like all leather products - whether synthetic or natural - products can wear down over time, which will be influenced by factors like the quality of the PU material and the manufacturing processes used to make the item.
For example, if the material used as a base is cheaper or more flimsy, your product will wear down much faster. Some manufacturers will also apply protective coatings to make the item resistant to water, scratches, or stains. This step isn’t always taken but can make a huge difference in the item's durability.
I want to note that PU leather will not age naturally like traditional leather. So keep that in mind if you want that “lived-in” leather look.
Polyurethane Leather vs. Faux Leather: Clearing the Confusion
Let’s chat about polyurethane leather vs. faux leather. Are they the same or different? Faux leather is an umbrella term for all leather, not from animal hide. PU leather is just one example of many that fall into this category.
There are several different categories of faux leather:
- PU leather is known for being soft, flexible, and affordable.
- PVC leather is known for its durability and water resistance.
- Bio-based leather is newer and comes from renewable resources like cacti or pineapples.
- Cork leather is made from the bark of cork trees and is known for having an extremely natural-looking texture and appearance.
- Bonded leather is made by combining leftover leather scraps with a bonding agent. The result is an affordable, cheaper leather that isn’t as durable as regular leather.
- Microfiber leather is made from polyester or polyamide fibers which are woven together. This kind of leather is very durable but doesn’t resemble traditional leather as much as the other options on this list.
Is Polyurethane Leather really Leather?
To set the record straight, PU leather is NOT leather. It’s a synthetic material made to look like leather. Because PU leather and real leather look and feel so similar, it can be tough to tell the difference between the two, and there are some ways you can spot PU leather (besides looking at the tag). These include:
- Look for imperfections: Real leather should have natural markings and imperfections (like variations in color or grain)
- Try a burn test: Depending on the item, you can burn a small piece of the material. When burned, real leather smells like burnt hair, while PU leather smells like plastic.
- Check the edges: One of the imperfections unique to real leather is rough, unfinished edges. PU leather, on the other hand, will have a smooth edge.
While I love that no animals were harmed to make the material, synthetic fabrics made from plastic contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and the warming of our planet. I also don’t love the amount of chemicals required to make these materials in the first place.
I believe faux leathers made from plants like Piñatex or cacti leather are a much more sustainable option and more indicative of the slow fashion movement we are all striving for! While these options might be a bit more pricey, they are just as durable as real leather and are built to last.
Have you tried any of the faux leather options I talked about today? Leave a comment below!