Faux Leather vs Leather
There is so much information floating around on the internet about what type of leather you should purchase; synthetic leather? Real leather? Something else? What are these even really made of, and how are they processed? Which is more sustainable? Ethical? Easy to care for? Affordable? Today, we’re going to dive into all of these questions, and compare faux leather fabric to what’s called ‘real leather’.
Animal skins before being processed and tanned into leather.
‘Real leather’ is normally chemically tanned cow skin.
If you’re wondering what leather is made of, it’s most commonly cow skin, which is bought from the meat and dairy industries. It is then fleshed - removing fat from the cow’s skin - and then, almost always, chemically tanned with chromium. Chromium VI is a human carcinogen, making leather tannery jobs risky for workers. These people are more likely to struggle with health problems and cancers.
‘Real leather’ is considered to be natural, but, aside from animal agriculture being a leading cause of destruction of our natural environments, it is also no longer natural because of the processing involved in turning skin to leather. As well as the chemicals used to tan the skin, halting decomposition, leather is dyed, and if it is patent leather, the most shiny leather common to see today, it is coated in polyurethane. Polyurethane is what synthetic leather is most commonly made of.
With lots of different terms thrown around by the industry, it can be hard to keep up. Just know that ‘real leather’ is the same as ‘genuine leather’, and ‘cow skin leather’.
Faux or animal leather?
Faux leather fabric is a synthetic and man-made leather, rather than one made from an animal.
Sometimes called a ‘fake leather’ material, the most common artificial leather is a polyurethane faux leather. Polyurethane, or PU leather, is vegan, and it’s a plasticised painted surface on a fabric backing. This fabric backing could be made of acrylic, cotton, recycled polyester, or something else. If you’re wondering, ‘is PU leather toxic’, don’t worry. In Australia, and almost all countries, there are strict regulations in place during production of PU leather to ensure this vegan material is safe.
The basis of polyurethane is most often derived from fossil fuels, though sometimes it also comes from plant oils; from corn, beans, or sugary crops.
Synthetic leather was first invented in the car and auto-machine industry, as they found real leather was cracking in the sun inside people’s cars. It was also more difficult to care for. For this industry, when comparing faux leather vs leather for ease of use, synthetic leather won.
There are other types of leather which are also faux, which are made from different fruits, and even cactus.
Leather made from cactus.
The differences between faux leather vs leather
Appearance and Texture
Synthetic leather has come a long way. Faux leather has never been as good quality as it is today, mimicking the textures of animal leather perfectly. So, when looking at faux leather vs leather today, it can be almost impossible to see the difference. If you want to tell if leather is ‘real’, often you’ll have to smell it (you’re smelling the chromium and chemicals), or see if it stretches - only animal skin leather does as far.
However, there are plenty of differences between leather and faux leather, which we’ll outline below.
Faux leather bags from Kinds of Grace. Can you tell?
Faux leather is more affordable than real leather. The reason is not because vegan leather is less durable, or high quality, but because of how long it takes to create animal skin leather. Faux leather is made of a material that we can easily and quickly make. In comparison, in order to obtain leather from an animal, a whole lot needs to happen. A cow must be pregnant and give birth. That baby calf, if not slaughtered for dairy and used for extra soft leather, is raised on land and fed for about two years, if that, before they are slaughtered. The slaughtering process is followed by a butchering and skinning, and these skins are then fleshed, salted, tanned and processed. This all costs money.
Cows resting together.
There are both high and low quality leathers and faux leathers. Of course in both instances, the higher quality material is longer lasting. If you’re wondering if faux leather is good, or more specifically, if vegan leather is durable, the answer is yes - if you’re buying a high quality one.
All materials need to be cared for in order to stay looking their best. But if you’re looking for a bag you can take with you everywhere, vegan leather fabric might suit you better. Faux leather is waterproof to a point - it can be in the rain briefly, without it getting damaged. Leather is not waterproof to the same degree, as it is permeable. When water enters into the tanned animal skin it gets wet, and it may dry stiff. This won’t happen with faux leather. Animal leather is also more prone to sun damage.
Damaged animal skin leather.
As mentioned, all types of leather need to be cared for if they are to stay at the same quality you bought them. They need to be handled with care to avoid scuffs against rough surfaces, stored out of sunlight, and for extra protection, in a dust bag. However, when comparing faux leather vs leather, there are some differences in care requirements.
‘Real leather’ or animal leather bags, for example, can be stained easily, even just from the oils in your hands. They are kept in best condition when they are cleansed and moisturised, or they can go hard and even crack over time. They can be stained more easily than faux leather, and these stains can damage the leather forever.
Faux leather material care is much more simple. There’s no need for moisturising or polishing, and if you spill something on a vegan leather bag, you can just wipe it with a slightly damp cloth. Synthetic leather isn’t as porous as animal skin leather, so it doesn’t absorb moisture from hand oils, or anything else the way animal ‘real leather’ does.
Is it so surprising that someone's skin, whether tanned or not, will absorb oils and so get damaged?
Sustainability and Ethics
Of course, to be a more conscious shopper, we should consider not only the cost and durability of a material, but what we are supporting with our dollar when we buy it. Let’s do a quick and simple break down of faux leather vs leather from a sustainability and ethics standpoint.
- Faux leather fabric is not made from an animal, so does not financially support a cruel slaughter industry, the way animal skin leather does. ‘Real leather’ is not a by-product of these industries, but a profitable co-product.
Newborn, less than 24 hour old baby calves in the dairy industry, who are born male, can legally be killed by being hit in the head with a hammer. Their skins are considered extremely valuable to the leather industry. Other cattle eventually used for leather have their horns painfully cut off without pain relief, and are forcibly impregnated. None of this happens for faux leather.
Neither ‘real leather’ or fake leather material effectively biodegrade, even according to leather industry studies. So, the more important eco-impact to consider when comparing the materials is their production impact.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition shows cow skin leather to be one of the most environmentally impactful to produce, with PU faux leather having half the eco-impact.
‘Real leather’ is the number one driver of deforestation in the Amazon, with leather and beef cattle ranching causing 80% of the destruction there, in what we consider the ‘lungs of the earth’.
Deforestation in the Amazon.
With all of this information to guide you, next time you are looking for a bag, there is lots to consider. Will you buy real or faux leather goods, based on your moral code, and what you think is right? Will you be looking for a more waterproof and durable bag? Will you be looking for a vegan leather bag which is more sustainable? In our minds, there’s a clear winner, and it’s synthetic leather.