The Guide To Vegan Leather: A Better Alternative To Real Leather


Vegan leather is as fashionable as animal leather … but without all the animal hides. And that’s a good thing! This not only makes vegan leather purchases cruelty-free, but also more affordable.

This guide demystifies vegan leather, unpacks its benefits, and answers every burning question. 

What is vegan leather and what is it made out of?

Vegan leather, also called faux leather, is a leather-like fabric made from materials other than animal hides. It looks, feels, and acts like animal leather — but it’s crafted with other artificial or natural materials like:

  • Polyurethane (PU)
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
  • Fruits, vegetables, or other plants
  • Plant-based byproducts

Regardless, vegan products are only vegan if they’re made without animal products. This includes hides and glues that may hold products together.

Common vegan leather products include vegan handbags, wallets, belts, and shoes. Such products are often less expensive than those made with animal leather as well.

Vegan leather products require maintenance just as animal leather products do. This includes proper storage, regular cleaning, and sometimes polish.

What does vegan leather look like?

Vegan leather looks just like real leather — but it depends on the quality. The higher the quality, the more closely it mimics animal leather. In most cases, you’ll even notice “pores” printed along its surface to match the texture of real leather.

However, unlike real leather, vegan leather won’t develop a patina. Patina is the aged or weathered look real leather develops over time and after repeated use.

Is vegan leather durable?

With proper care, vegan leather can last as long as real leather. However, the average lifespan of vegan leather goods is about two to five years. Many people consider this “durable enough” considering that vegan leather often costs less than animal leather.

It’s important to note that the durability of a vegan leather good comes down to the quality of materials. For example, handbags made with single-layer PVC won’t last as long as bags thoughtfully made with quality PU.

In addition, the more vegan leather is cared for, the longer it will last. For this reason, it’s best to avoid putting vegan leather in direct sunlight or hanging vegan leather bags by their straps. Instead, invest in storage bags or get creative with closet organizers.

Can you stretch vegan leather?

Vegan leather can stretch, but it’s not as stretchy as animal leather. Common vegan leather stretching methods include heat, cold, or tools like shoe stretchers.

For example, vegan leather shoes will soften over time with wear, just like animal leather shoes. Or if shoes are too tight, they can be stretched slightly over the course of a few days to make more room.

However, it’s generally recommended to avoid overstretching vegan leather. Doing so can increase the risk of cracking.

What is PETA-approved vegan leather?

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is an animal rights organization. The group grants “PETA-Approved Vegan” certifications to brands, which lets them highlight vegan-friendly products with a special logo. This makes it easier for shoppers to identify vegan products as they browse.

Common PETA-Approved Vegan products include:

  • Apparel
  • Handbags
  • Footwear
  • Wallets
  • Jewelry

What is veg tan leather? Is it vegan?

Veg tan leather, or vegetable-tanned leather, is a cowhide tanning method. It’s a traditional tanning method that involves prepping, tanning, dying, and drying a hide.

The reason it’s called “vegetable tanning” is that the process uses natural tannins from tree bark and other vegetation. Most real leather is made with this tanning process.

Lastly, because vegetable-tanned leather uses real animal hides, it’s not considered vegan.

what is vegan leather

Is faux leather vegan?

Vegan leather and faux leather are basically the same. Vegan leather is also sometimes called pleather, plastic leather, or fake leather.

Instead of animal hides, faux leather uses alternative materials. Vegan leather can be made from synthetic materials, like plastics. But it can also be made from natural materials, like cork.

In which case, faux leather, pleather, and vegan leather are often interchangeable. However, pleather is specifically made from plastic.

Is vegan leather biodegradable?

Vegan leather can be made from synthetic or natural materials. Whether it’s biodegradable or not depends on what it’s made from.

For example, many vegan leather goods are made with PVC, or polyvinyl chloride. PVC isn’t biodegradable, and it’s not considered eco-friendly.

Other vegan goods are made with PU, or polyurethane. For example, many MERSI handbags are crafted with high-quality PU. PU is considered environmentally friendly, non-toxic, and BPA-free.

Benefits of using vegan leather

First and foremost, vegan leather is better for animals. Since vegan leather uses alternative materials, no animals are harmed in the process.

Plus, vegan leather creates fewer carbon dioxide emissions. Cattle farming (and other types of animal farming) create huge carbon footprints. Since vegan leather doesn’t rely on cattle or other animals, it produces a fraction of the carbon dioxide.

In addition, vegan leather (especially leathers made from PU) uses fewer toxic chemicals. Animal leather tanning uses toxic chemicals like chromium. De-liming animal leathers also releases hydrogen sulfide. However, PU is generally considered eco-friendly and non-toxic.

Types of vegan leather

PU leather

PU leather, or polyurethane leather, is a vegan leather made of thermoplastic polymer. It’s an affordable option for people who want a cruelty-free alternative to animal leather.

PU leather is also waterproof (which makes it easy to clean), and it doesn’t dry out over time. Plus, PU leather can be made into a wide variety of colors, shapes, and styles.

PVC leather

PVC is short for polyvinyl chloride, or vinyl. It’s a versatile plastic that’s bonded to a fabric base and then textured. PVC leather closely resembles PU leather, however it’s not considered as eco-friendly.

Recycled plastic / rubber trade leather

Vegan leather can also be made with recycled plastic or rubber waste. For example, plastic bottles or even old car tires. It’s an environmentally-friendly approach to vegan leather. However, there’s limited color potential when making leather from these recycled materials.

Apple leather

Yes, vegan leather can even be made with apple pulp! Apple pulp gets prepped, rolled out, and heated into a biodegradable faux leather. Many apple leathers are actually a mixture of apple pulp and PU that’s processed into highly-texturized goods.

The downsides of apple leather is that it’s tough to get a smooth texture and apple leather goods are tough to find.

MuSkin leather (mushroom leather)

Another unique vegan leather is MuSkin leather. It’s made from a special kind of mushroom that’s then treated with wax. The final result is a highly-textured, grainy, and eco-friendly faux leather.

Like recycled plastic leather, there’s not a ton of color variety with MuSkin leather. It’s also hard to find MuSkin leather goods for sale.

Banana leather

Banana leather is yet another type of vegan leather that’s durable, water-resistant, and eco-friendly. It’s made from banana plant stems that no longer bear fruit. Banana leather can also be made by mixing together banana plant fibers and cell walls of coconuts.

Nopal cacti leather

Nopal cacti is a type of cactus that’s also known as the “prickly pear cactus.” These plants don’t require a lot of water and grow easily around North America. Best of all, it’s used to make vegan leather.

Nopal cacti leather is also sustainable, eco-friendly, and breathable. Goods made with prickly pear cacti leather are easy to clean, and they aren’t processed with tons of toxic chemicals.

Cork leather

Last but not least, cork leather! Cork is a sustainable, water-resistant material that can be processed into a leather-like material.

Cork gets extracted from cork oak trees and then dried, steamed, and boiled. It’s then cut into sheets and a fabric backing is applied. Cork leather is then cut, sewn, and crafted into goods often made with animal leather.

Vegan leather FAQ

Is vegan leather real leather?

“Real leather” is made from animal hides (or skins). Vegan leather is made with materials that don’t come from animals like:

  • PU
  • PVC
  • Vegetables
  • Recycled rubber

In which case, vegan leather is not “real leather.”  But it often looks, feels, and functions just as real leather does.

Can you distress vegan leather?

It’s possible to distress vegan leather, but not with traditional methods. Scraping, brushing, solvents, and other common leather distressing techniques will damage vegan leather.

Instead, thin layers of fabric paint and acrylics can achieve the distressed look. Dyes can also give vegan leather a distressed look. However, vegan leather doesn’t absorb dyes easily.

Is vegan leather waterproof?

Yes, most vegan leathers are waterproof. In general, vegan leathers are at least water-resistant.

However, it’s important to note that other components of a vegan leather good may not be waterproof. For example, a fabric lining inside a vegan leather handbag likely isn’t waterproof.

If vegan leather products get wet, it’s best to air dry. Some vegan leather goods can go for a quick tumble in the dryer, but it’s not generally recommended.

Is vegan leather toxic?

There are many different types of vegan leather. For example, PU vegan leather is made with polyurethane. It’s a plastic material, but it’s considered eco-friendly and non-toxic.

However, other vegan leather goods can be made with PVC, or polyvinyl chloride. PVC is a type of plastic, like PU. But it’s not considered eco-friendly. Over time, PVC can break down and release toxic chemicals.

Can you polish vegan leather?

Spruce up vegan leather bags, shoes, and so on by wiping with a damp towel. Make sure to use microfiber, and dip the towel in a mild detergent and water solution. Then, use a dry microfiber cloth to buff dry.

If vegan leather needs a little extra TLC after cleaning, use some leather polishing cream or wax. This helps protect vegan leather against moisture, and it adds a nice shine to the surface.

Can you iron vegan leather?

Yes, ironing can smooth out wrinkles in vegan leather. However, it’s recommended you place a barrier between the vegan leather and the iron, such as a cloth or pillowcase. This prevents “overdoing it” with the iron and damaging the leather.

Is carbon fiber leather vegan?

Carbon fiber leather is an emerging fabric used by many luxury and high-end brands. Goods made with carbon fiber leather are durable, strong, and tightly woven. It’s often upholstered the same way that animal leather is, but it’s usually vegan.

Some brands mix carbon fiber and leather to make a product. But if a good is made solely with carbon fiber and nothing else, it’s vegan.

Is hydro leather vegan?

Hydro leather is animal leather that’s been coated with PU. The PU coating makes the leather waterproof and more suitable for outdoor use. Since hydro leather is coated animal leather, it’s not vegan because it’s made with animal hides.

Key takeaways

Vegan leather is a cruelty-free (and affordable) alternative to traditional animal leather. Here are some key takeaways about vegan leather to consider:

  • Vegan leather can be made from synthetic materials or natural materials
  • Vegan leather closely mimics the look and feel of animal leather
  • Some types of vegan leather are more eco-friendly than animal leather

Curious about vegan leather, its benefits, and how to style it? Check out The Vegan Warehouse blog for fashion tips, plant-based news, and all-things vegan lifestyle.

Taylor Cossairt
Taylor Cossairt is a content writer and regular contributor to The Vegan Warehouse. She currently writes for start-ups, non-profits, and other brands. Taylor specializes in creating content for conscious companies, like The Vegan Warehouse, to help connect with like-minded readers.
Taylor Cossairt is a content writer and regular contributor to The Vegan Warehouse. She currently writes for start-ups, non-profits, and other brands. Taylor specializes in creating content for conscious companies, like The Vegan Warehouse, to help connect with like-minded readers.