Environmentally conscious consumers are fretting about not just what they eat. Some have started to shun clothes and other products made from animal hides, opting instead for synthetic and natural alternatives. Collectively these have become known as vegan leather. Even Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc. will offer a “fully vegan” car. These alternatives to leather are often cheaper. The question for consumers is: Are they better for the planet?
What sounds like an oxymoron mostly refers to synthetic products. Instead of processed cowhides or sheepskin, the majority of vegan leather is made from plastic-based polyurethane chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU). However, there is also an innovative variety of nature-based products, such as those derived from cork, bark, pineapple leaves or apple peel. Manufacturers of high-quality alternatives say they look identical to the real thing, although vegan leather doesn’t improve with age the way animal leather can.