How Shoppers Got Tricked By Vegan Leather

Pleather has a new name.

cow crossed out with red lines in front of green background
Illustration by Matt Chase / The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

If you’ve ever purchased a pair of faux-leather sandals without realizing they were faux, the sandals probably cleared up that misunderstanding for you pretty quickly. Both real and fake leather can shred your feet on first meeting, but the real stuff will eventually stretch, bend, soften, and mold itself to your needs. Faux leather, meanwhile, is more likely to remind you why it has long had the derogatory moniker of pleather. It’s plastic, which doesn’t really break in. In many of plastic’s uses, that’s a feature. In footwear, it’s a skin-sloughing, blister-producing bug.

Pleather has always had some obstacles to full consumer acceptance. Real leather is widely understood as a status symbol, so among shoppers, pleather is known primarily for what it fails to be: rare, luxurious, expensive, convincing, real. Its main advantage is being super cheap—a property that ingratiates it to manufacturers looking to cut costs and shoppers looking for bargain-basement prices. But even a couple of steps up the fashion food chain, buyers are harder to convince that pleather is tolerable, let alone desirable. As plastics have successfully slithered into all kinds of clothing, many people who are perfectly happy with a viscose-polyester-blend dress or a partially acrylic wool coat will still scoff at a fake-leather jacket.

In recent years, faux leather has had one huge thing working in its favor, however: the concerns that a growing number of Americans have with the ethics and sustainability of using animal products. This sense of consumer unease has put products such as Oatly oat milk and Beyond Meat patties into grocery stores nationwide, and it has prompted investors to pour cash into companies engineering other kinds of alternatives to animal products, including materials that imitate the look and feel of animal leathers. The result: Pleather has been rebranded as vegan leather, a phrase you can now find all over the industry, including in occasional use by fast-fashion companies such as H&M, Shein, and Oh Polly. The term bestows on pleather a virtuousness and desirability all its own.

But here’s the thing: So far, the only problem that’s been solved in fashion is one of marketing. Pleather is still pleather, and its elevation as an unalloyed good shows how easily sustainability can be wielded as a thought-terminating cliché.

Vegan leather is usually made of PVC or polyurethane. It has had a trajectory somewhat more modest than its petroleum-derived brethren—think polyester or acrylic—which are now present in 60 percent of the textiles used for clothing, where plastics can be woven together with natural materials and hide in plain sight. Faux leather comes with the same lower cost as other synthetics, but it can’t hide in the same way. Real leather has a weight to it, a substantialness, a smell. Its properties have helped make it a signifier of luxury not just in fashion but also in car interiors and upholstered furniture and bookbindings. Chanel’s signature lambskin is so incredibly soft that textural comparisons to butter seem almost inadequate. Many types of leather develop a patina, which means they get more aesthetically pleasing with age and use, and develop a deepened, variegated color.

Almost all “vegan” leathers are made by bonding liquid plastics onto a fabric or paper backing stamped with a leatherlike texture. The resulting material tends to feel spongy or thin, look wrinkly, have a plasticky sheen, or smell like other, less glamorous plastic products. In most cases, these materials also break down more quickly. Whereas leather goods can be repeatedly cleaned and repaired, according to Vincent Rao Jr., who works at Vince’s Village Cobbler in New York City, non-animal leathers mostly just crack, split, peel, or fray. Rao’s family’s business maintains a popular Instagram account where it demonstrates just how effectively leather can be restored, even if it seems totally trashed. Plastics, Rao told me, don’t really reshape or break in—eventually, they just come apart in some way. At that point, he said, vegan leather can be much harder, and sometimes impossible, to revive. “If you’re dealing with something like polyurethane, when you apply any cleaning agent or chemical to break down dirt and grime, it tends to destroy the material,” Rao said.

Lifetime usage is where the story of leather’s environmental impact gets especially complicated. Nothing absolves animal leather of its own sins. It’s natural insofar as it’s made up largely of animal matter, but chromium tanning is by far the most popular method for turning that matter into a durable material suitable for leather goods. The method requires the use of a slew of caustic chemicals that can be dangerous to workers, and it creates waste that seeps into the surrounding environment. On top of that, most leathers are a by-product of the beef industry, and industrial-scale cattle ranching releases methane into the atmosphere, spurs deforestation, and is generally horrific for the welfare of the animals involved. When vegan leathers are made of cheap plastics that need to be frequently replaced, though, their environmental costs add up.

Plenty of companies are trying to resolve these contradictions by developing new leatherlike materials, usually with proteins extracted from plants or fungi as a base, that will be more durable and use less (or, ideally, no) plastic. Detailed breakdowns of materials can be hard to come by, but if you read the fine print on those that have come to market, significant use of plastics so far appears to be hard to avoid. The luxury clothing brand Balenciaga, for instance, sells a men’s jacket made of vegan leather from Desserto, a Mexico-based developer of cactus leathers. According to Balenciaga’s product listing, the jacket’s material contains 20 percent vegetable fiber and 12.5 percent cotton—the rest is polyurethane and polyester. (Desserto, for its part, does not publicly disclose the composition of those plastics, but the company maintains that it makes a number of different leathers that contain up to 90 percent plant fiber, and that even its less advanced materials’ carbon footprint represents a significant improvement over that of cow leather.)

Other vegan-leather developers have run into a different problem: Engineering a brand-new material and scaling up its production enough to make any kind of dent in market demand can result in products that are prohibitively expensive up front. One company, MycoWorks, creates leathers out of mushroom fibers without, it says, using plastics at all. MycoWorks doesn’t publicly disclose its prices for brands, but it told The New York Times that its products are comparable in cost to exotic leathers, which are much more expensive than even the most luxurious cow leathers. The company said to the Times that it believes it can eventually bring down prices as its technology becomes more advanced—a dynamic that we’ve seen play out with other technologically advanced products that eventually become commonplace, such as personal computers and electric vehicles. But no one knows exactly how long that kind of economy of scale will take, and for now, the kind of affordability that could meaningfully change Americans’ purchase patterns is not in the immediate future.

For all vegan-leather developers, the aesthetic concerns still lurk behind the technical ones too. Not much of this stuff really, genuinely looks or feels like leather, even though some of it is convincing in certain finishes or textures, just like old-fashioned pleather.

It’s possible that vegan-leather developers are correct and that, on balance, the environmental-impact math works out to support a switch toward petroleum products, no matter how counterintuitive such a switch might seem. Or maybe that will eventually be the case. Plant-based-leather producers frequently speak of grand hopes that someday soon, technological advances will allow them to use more plant protein and much less plastic, and enable them to ramp up cost-effective production at a much larger scale.

But therein lies the problem: How can anyone tell either way right now? The makers and sellers of neither animal leathers nor faux leathers are especially transparent about what goes into their products or how those products perform over time. This is the reality of our consumer system: Regular people have virtually no insight into how the goods they purchase are made or what resources they require, so trying to reason through these comparisons without expert knowledge can lead you in the exact wrong direction.

According to Maxine Bédat, the founder and director of the sustainable-fashion think tank New Standard Institute, the math that measures the environmental effects of animal and vegan leathers is currently being done in a way that prevents any meaningful comparison between the two. The most common rubric, Bédat told me, is something called a life-cycle assessment. LCAs are mostly a “cradle to gate” measure, she said, meaning they take into account the carbon impact of creating the materials that go into a product, manufacturing it, and getting it into a store. After that, it’s off the carbon books.

Vegan leathers usually come out looking better in these calculations—sometimes by a little, sometimes by orders of magnitude. But, Bédat said, the numbers ignore the most important element of a fashion product’s environmental impact: how many times that product will be used before it is discarded. Real leathers, with their longer lives and higher costs, encourage people to slow down their consumption cycles. Meanwhile, people seem to throw their vegan-leather goods away when they get a little bit worn. Rao, the cobbler, said that even though pleather is extremely common in new products, pleather owners seeking repair and maintenance make up a very small proportion of his family’s business—he estimated that one in every 20 products brought into the shop is made from non-animal leather of any kind.

The conversation about durability and length of use is largely one that the fashion industry doesn’t want to have. The business runs on people buying more products, which incentivizes the industry to wield sustainability as a marketing tool rather than to reform how much waste and pollution fashion actually creates. The primary goal is always more consumption; any sustainability pitch calibrated to reassure people that they can feel good about continuing to buy will be misleading. Real leather’s longevity has no value if the shoppers are replacing their leather bags and shoes with something new and trendy every few months.

LCAs are usually conducted or commissioned by fashion companies themselves, using their own metrics and data. The math tends to work out in ways that are convenient for whatever they’re selling. Vegan-leather brands and advocates of its use, for example, usually include the full carbon impact of raising cattle in the figures that show a significant savings when you switch to pleather. Leather advocates argue that’s misleading because most leather is a by-product of the meat industry, which means that its manufacture doesn’t create any additional environmental impact until after the cow is slaughtered. Or take fast-fashion brands: They generally want to report carbon impacts per individual product, which are fairly low. But, as Bédat told me, the biggest problem with cheap products is not how bad the materials in any one pleather bag are for the environment; it’s the sheer scale of their production and how effectively they’ve taught people to treat clothing and accessories as disposable.

This is all part of the practice that’s come to be known as “greenwashing,” through which brands and manufacturers bestow halos of goodness on otherwise unexceptional products. Labeling an object as “sustainable” or “ethical” or “eco-friendly” requires little burden of proof on the part of the manufacturer, and buyers are inclined to conceive of those designations according to their own mores—they tend to be looking for permission to buy something that they already want, not reasons to abstain. That conceptual collapse is convenient for brands. They don’t even have to tell their shoppers much of a story—they use a few keywords, and people looking for reasons to buy fill in whatever makes them feel satisfied.

According to Bédat, no laws in the United States currently exist that require disclosure of any sort of environmental-impact data on the part of fashion brands. Such laws would at least ensure that companies’ calculations all include the same metrics and that the general public be privy to what they are. In the meantime, brands are free to spin a good yarn about their own benevolence. Just watch out—it probably has some acrylic in it.