How is vegan leather made?

In this brief guide, we will answer the query, “How is vegan leather made?” and will discuss the detailed composition and appearance of vegan leather.

How is vegan leather made?

Vegan leather (aka synthetic leather) is made of Polyurethane, a polymer that can be tailored to the specifications of any designer, which is why it’s often used to create vegan leather. Items created from pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, and other fruit debris may also be utilized to generate products that put animal skins to shame in terms of quality.

According to studies, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, are the countries investing hugely in the vegan market; in the United Kingdom, people are witnessing a 75% rise in vegan products year over year, while in the United States, there has been an 11 percent increase. Moreover, the women’s vegan fashion market globally stands at the worth of US $396.3 billion in 2019 and is predicted to rise at a CAGR of 13.6 percent between 2020-27 (5). 

Composition of vegan leather

Chemicals and industrial processes used to make synthetic leather are quite distinct from those used to make genuine leather. With a fabric backing and a plastic coating, the most popular method of imitation leather, it is possible to determine whether or not it is eco-friendly based on the kind of plastic used.

Synthetic leather has been produced since the 1930´s by applying or laminating a PVC, polyvinyl chloride, coating, upon adequate finishing, onto one side of a base material that is usually a fabric. After decades of improvement, PVC synthetic materials in the contemporary era resemble genuine leather particularly in appearance (1).

Synthetic leathers are also produced by coating polyurethane (PU) resin over a base fabric, which generally comprises woven fabric or knit made of synthetic fibers, and forming open cells to maintain air permeability. PU is a polymer compound that has a urethane bond (-NHCOO-) and a chemical structure in which soft segment, which is formed by the reaction of diisocyanate and polymeric polyol, and hard segment, which is formed by the reaction of diisocyanate and chain extender, exist simultaneously in a molecule (2).

In contrast to the widespread usage of PVC in the 1960s and 1970s, it may still be found in certain vegan leather products. Dioxins, which may be toxic in tight areas and much more dangerous if burned, are released by PVC. Plasticizers like phthalates are used to make it more malleable. Phthalates may be exceedingly harmful depending on the kind of phthalate used. Described as the “single most ecologically destructive form of plastic” by Greenpeace.

More recent and less harmful plastic is PU, which is being continuously improved to lessen its defects, such as the harmful chemicals it produces during manufacture and the oil-based polymers it is created with, which require fossil resources.

What is the smell of vegan leather?

It’s common for PVC or PU-based vegan/faux leather to have an off-putting odor due to the chemicals used in its production. Many people describe it as a “fishy” odor that is difficult to remove, particularly if you’re attempting to avoid damaging the material at the same time. Toxic poisons may also be released by PVC, which has a noxious odor.

Both PU and PVC artificial leather have commonly been associated with an unpleasant chemical odor, which comes out during the coating at high temperature, from evolved volatile organic compounds like hydrogen chloride, substituted benzenes, aldehydes and phthalic anhydride. These chemicals dissipate over time, but their smells don’t go away completely (3).

What does vegan leather look like?

The varying types and properties of vegan leather mean that some are more ‘leather-like than others. Generally speaking, there isn’t much of a distinction between vegan leather and actual leather. Vegan leather, on the other hand, is a synthetic material that lacks the natural patina of genuine leather and is less permeable since the pores printed on the pleather’s surface are artificial.

Even though synthetic leather is used as a substitute for genuine leather, it cannot match the luxuriousness of genuine leather itself. However, high-quality products can be produced through the development of materials with excellent elasticity, resilience and soft feel (2).

Real vs vegan Leather

For many individuals, the most important consideration when choosing between vegan and genuine leather is the environmental and animal effects. Vegetarian-friendly products may be implied by the phrase “vegan leather,” although this is not always the case.

However, new approaches have been made to produce environmentally friendly vegan leather out of bacterial cellulose, covered with natural wax and dyes extracted from pomegranate and garlic (4).

Is vegan leather environmentally friendly?

Faux leather is often referred to as “vegan leather” because it is made from synthetic materials rather than animal hides. However, while this is great news for animal rights activists, the toxic plastics used to make synthetic leather make it bad for the environment and humans as a whole. 

To impart the PVC coating with flexibility and bendability, a substantial amount (40–120 wt%) of plasticizers must be added. Plasticizer acts like a lubricant that intercalates the rigid PVC chains for an easy movement, otherwise pristine PVC would be too brittle for any practical purpose. Since the plasticizers are not chemically bonded to PVC chains, they tend to migrate from the coating during production, storage or service, burdening the environment and shortening the lifespan of the end-products (1).

Dioxins released during the production and disposal of PVC-based synthetics have the potential to harm human development and reproduction, as well as cause cancer. Toxic particles and phthalates may be released from synthetics used in vegan leather, which are not biodegradable but can still be broken down to some extent.

To what extent is vegan leather superior to real leather?

When comparing genuine leather with vegan leather, quality and durability are also key factors to keep in mind. Vegan leather is frequently considerably thinner and lighter than genuine leather, which is fantastic for fashion since it makes it simpler to work with, but it is also less durable than real leather. When properly cared for, genuine leather shoes may endure for decades, although good-quality imitation leather shoes may only last you around a year. This is an essential consideration when weighing the environmental effect of buying several fake leather products vs a single genuine leather item versus real leather.

Furthermore, synthetic leathers degrade unpleasantly over time, whereas genuine leather develops a patina over time that is seen to provide character to the material.

Studies show that synthetic leathers could achieve similar mechanical properties to natural leather and different treatments and formulations simulate the functionality of natural leather used to make shoes, bags and furniture (2). 

As with PVC-based faux leather, genuine leather contains pores that allow the skin to breathe. Faux leather has none of them. As a result, wearing coats made of vegan leather may be unpleasant over time.

Faux leather items are far less expensive than those made from genuine leather, which is a benefit to consumers and the environment. That’s because making synthetic plastic leather is less expensive than making genuine leather. Custom-made leather goods like couches, coats, and bags may cost thousands of dollars due to the high level of expertise required in the manufacturing process. As a result of their reputation for great quality and long-term durability, manufacturers may charge these fees.

However, plasticizers used in the formulations of synthetic leather migrate into the environment and may cause negative health effects. The release of chemical compounds of these synthetic items raises increasing concerns over their safety issue, driving this old industry into an unprecedented crisis of public confidence and sustainability. Therefore, any emerging plasticizer that succeeds in this arena of intensive competition is required to demonstrate excellent migration resistance, a crucial indicator governing how the resulting PVC coating holds up against long-term service and low environmental impact (1).

Other FAQs about Vegans that you may be interested in.

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Is 150a vegan?

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In this brief guide, we answered the query, “How is vegan leather made?” and discussed the detailed composition and appearance of vegan leather.


  1. Chen, Y., Zhou, S., Pan, S. et al. Methods for determination of plasticizer migration from polyvinyl chloride synthetic materials: a mini review. J Leather Sci Eng, 2022, 4, 8. 
  2. Roh, Eui Kyung, Kyung Wha Oh, and Seong Hun Kim. Classification of synthetic polyurethane leather by mechanical properties according to consumers’ preference for fashion items. Fibers Polym, 2013, 14, 1731-1738.
  3. Gargoubi, Sondes, et al. Getting rid of the unpleasant odor in new artificial leather using natural and synthetic fragrances. Chem Ind Chem Eng Quart, 2019, 25, 141-151.
  4. da Silva Junior, Claudio José Galdino, et al. Design of a Naturally Dyed and Waterproof Biotechnological Leather from Reconstituted Cellulose. J Funct Biomater, 2022, 13, 49.
  5. Baliyan, Rashi, and Ms Priya Diwan. Vegan Fashion or Sustainable Apparels: India’s next move post pandemic. Empirical Economics Letters, 2021, 20.