Vegan leather vs real leather- The Debate

Image Credit: Ellie McCreanor

Leather has squeezed its way back onto the high street and runways alike, and with that, the popularity of vegan leather has soared. Ellie McCreanor looks and the pros and cons of both real and faux.

Traditionally, leather in fashion has been the mark of goths, bikers and the cool-kid-Danny-Zuko types. It lurks in the background, never fully going out of fashion. Even if the leather jacket doesn't make the cut, leather shoes are almost a given on any runway. However, in recent years, and particularly in 2020, it has worked its way back into the mainstream fashion world, and today you can buy a full leather outfit from your local Topshop. With this growth in the popularity of leather has come the emergence of vegan leather. Popular shoe brands such as Dr Martin and Koi footwear have brought out vegan ranges, with Koi exclusively selling vegan shoes. 

this time around it looks and feels so much like the real thing that it begs the question, do we need real leather at all?

Now, faux leather, or pleather, if you will, is nothing new. Though, this time around it looks and feels so much like the real thing that it begs the question, do we need real leather at all? The obvious arguments against real leather, and the reason why vegan leather exists in the first place, are that it is expensive and animals have to die in order to produce it. This is a fact that can't be argued with - leather is an animal product and if that's not for you then vegan leather all the way. However, unlike real fur products such as mink fur, the animal is not typically killed exclusively for their skin, but for meat as well. Therefore, is there an environmental argument to be made that, as long as there is a meat industry, there should be a leather industry, as it is wasteful otherwise? Furthermore, if the leather is dyed naturally with vegetables and disposed of in the correct manner, is leather in fact a more sustainable choice? 

Vegan leather is sold, in many cases, as the solution to the issues that real leather presents. It is cheap and therefore accessible, and made from materials such as polyurethane (PU) meaning animals are not killed to produce it. However, like real leather, it has its downfalls. Vegan leather does not last as long as real leather, meaning it is likely to end up in landfill much faster than a real leather item that can be kept for longer and even-handed down through generations. Furthermore, real leather is a natural product and so can biodegrade easily and relatively quickly. Vegan leather is synthetic and can take decades upon decades to biodegrade. With this, it is important to note that due to the growing popularity of the material, there have been more sustainable developments in vegan leather, such as making it from natural materials like pineapple leaves and cork.

Ultimately, eliminating the plastic element and making vegan leather last longer are two issues that are likely to be solved in coming years, and if this form of pleather is affordable and widely accessible, then pleather wins the house cup. But until then, it seems far from a clear cut victory. This debate is lengthy and when it comes down to it, it is a personal preference. Although it's not for everyone, a best of both option is secondhand or vintage leather, it is usually high quality and does not directly support the leather industry. Food for thought.