Going vegan means more than cutting out meat, and giving up milk. It means ditching all animal products, which many people forget includes clothing and upholstery materials like silk (made by silkworms), wool (sheep hair), and leather (cowhide).
Once you realize that wearing leather means you’re literally wearing the outside layer of a cow, it’s hard to see it as anything besides “gross.” But the fact is that many types of clothing, furnishings, accessories, and other necessary items are made with leather.
The good news, however, is that there are leather alternatives, one of which is called PU leather. But is PU leather vegan? And, what is PU leather, exactly?
Don’t fret. I’m here to answer all this and more.
What is PU leather?
PU leather is a synthetic material made out of a type of polymer called polyurethane, which is essentially a type of plastic. So, the “PU” in PU leather stands for polyurethane. Now you know! (1)
PU is a common alternative to leather because polyurethane is easy to both mass produce and form into seemingly any shape or product. As well as PU leather, polyurethane is also used to make mattresses, car parts, insulation, and more.
Polyurethane is a popular choice for companies trying to jump the plant-based bandwagon as it’s not directly made from animals. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the PU product you’re buying is always 100% vegan, as we’re about to discover.
PU leather vs PU-coated leather
You do have to be careful about PU-coated leather, as some REAL leather products are coated with polyurethane and passed off as a leather alternative.
I know, this probably feels like something purposely designed to confuse vegans looking for 100% synthetic and animal-product-free items, but if you’re vigilant you’ll be able to work things out.
True PU leather items will have a tag that says “100% synthetic,” “vegan”, or will at least detail the exact makeup of the item, so be sure to check. As we move towards a more compassionate outlook, synthetic materials are actually a selling point rather than a hinderance, so manufacturers are generally keen to point out the fact that “no animals were harmed” to consumers these days.
PU vs other types of faux leather
Leather alternatives can have a number of different names besides PU. Some of these names include:
- Fake leather
- Faux leather
- Synthetic leather
- Vegan leather
Despite all of these different names, you’ll usually find that leather alternatives are made of only a few different materials, although there are a few really great leather alternatives made out of sustainable kelp, cork, and other natural materials.
Unfortunately, however, most common types of leather alternatives are made of plastic materials like polyurethane. Polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC, is another common choice.
PVC is another type of plastic polymer similar to polyurethane, but with some key differences…
PU leather vs PVC leather
Compared to PVC, PU is much more breathable since it’s usually only made of two layers of the synthetic material and has no backing. It’s also lighter and more flexible than PVC. (2)
On the flip side, this means that PU doesn’t do well in hot weather or humidity and it isn’t very durable. It tends to crack and flake quite easily and quickly, whereas PVC leather alternatives can take the heat – literally.
For more info on PVC leather and its production, check out the video below:
So, is PU leather vegan?
Ah, the age old “is it vegan?” question with the classic answer of “it depends!”
I mentioned earlier that sometimes real leather is coated with polyurethane and called PU leather, which can make buying an alternative to leather a little trickier and can feel like an evil plot to confuse us ( it’s not really, but it does feel like that sometimes, doesn’t it?).
So, when buying alternative leather products like PU, you have to be sure to check the labels. Make certain there’s a clear indication the PU leather product you’re buying is made of 100% synthetic material, which will be indicated on a tag. These days, it may also say “vegan” directly on the label, too.
Naturally, most of us buy stuff online nowadays, so physically checking labels can be a problem. Thankfully, the online product description should detail the materials used to make the item, so double check there before just trusting the “PU leather” designation. If it doesn’t explicitly state 100% synthetic or vegan, don’t buy it.
Other things to consider
There’s also the argument that many plastic products, like PU leather, are made with petroleum during the manufacturing process. Petroleum is made from fossil fuels, which are technically made from animals who lived millions of years ago. (3)
That’s a little nit-picky in terms of veganism, and many vegans don’t consider this an animal product. But I’d rather give you all the facts and let you decide for yourself!
How to differentiate between PU and real leather
Although looking at the label is clearly your best option, there are other things that could clue you in as to whether a product is made with PU or real leather.
These differences are also just good things to know in general as you switch from leather to vegan-friendly products. While vegan leather items are quite close to the real thing, there are key differences and changes that you should expect from cruelty-free alternatives:
Real leather has a very distinctive smell. Think thrift store jackets, designer men’s dress shoes, or your grandfather’s wallet.
Fake leather, such as PU leather, will usually smell like plastic, which makes sense because it is plastic. True PU (not PU-coated leather) will never smell like real cowhide.
PU will also feel a lot different to real leather, having a more plasticky texture compared to the real thing (again, for obvious reasons). If you’re unsure, you should feel both real and fake leather side by side to really understand the difference.
Because of how real leather is made, it usually only comes in a few colors: black, brown, and white. But PU is synthetic and can be easily dyed. This means you’ll be able to find PU leather in almost any color imaginable, while real leather is usually limited to neutrals.
Even with millions of cows killed each year in the animal industry, leather products remain a luxury item, so the price for real leather jackets, accessories, furniture, and more are usually quite high. (4)
But since PU is synthetic and easily mass produced, this makes it much more affordable. Chances are if you find a cheap “leather” jacket, it’s probably fake leather. But you should always check the label or contact the manufacturer to double check.
What products can be made with PU leather?
Whatever can be made with real leather can also be made with PU. You can find PU jackets, car seats, chair covers, handbags, vegan wallets, belts, boots, coats, etc etc. You’ll get even more variety with this material because of the added colors that you won’t find with cowhide.
Is PU the best vegan leather alternative?
After going over all the great things with PU, it’s time for a small reality check. Just because PU is available as a leather alternative doesn’t mean that it’s the best one, or one that we should be buying.
You must be thinking I’m having a mood swing. Didn’t I just say that PU is a great, cheap, and versatile alternative to leather? I did. But there’s more to the story.
Let’s dive into this a little deeper.
I touched upon this briefly when we were going over the difference between PU and PVC leather products. PU is breathable, cheap, and flexible, but this also means that it isn’t all that durable.
You’ll probably find yourself replacing PU products on a much more regular basis compared to real cowhide or other alternative leather products.
Environmental and health impact
Perhaps the biggest drawback to PU leather is the negative impact its production has on the environment. As I mentioned above, PU is made of polyurethane, which is a plastic product.
Chemicals like hydrogen sulfide and ammonia are often used during the manufacturing process of PU leather. These are harmful environmental pollutants that can cause significant health issues, including nerve damage and breathing issues. (5, 6)
Not only can polyurethane products and byproducts have negative impacts on our own health (like skin rashes, difficulty breathing, and chest tightness), they can also severely impact animal life and the environment. (7)
Byproducts from PU leather manufacturing, and polyurethane itself, have been shown to be toxic to aquatic life and be a component to oceanic pollution. (8)
Thinking back to the durability issue of PU leather, it’s not a shock that many of these PU leather products end up in landfills where they take a minimum of 1,000 years to decompose. Do you really want to contribute to that?
Consider these environmentally friendly leather alternatives
If you’re concerned about the health and environmental effects of PU leather production (which, after what we just went over, you probably should be), you’re not alone.
The good news is that there are natural and environmentally-friendly leather alternatives you can buy that are usually made from cork or kelp. Even pineapple leaves can be made into a viable alternative!
Choosing to buy products that will naturally biodegrade rather than synthetic materials which take dozens of generations to decompose will help protect wildlife and lessen your environmental impact considerably.
Sure, these alternatives may be more expensive (and harder to find) at present but, if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford them, they’re certainly worthy of your consideration.
So, is PU leather vegan?
Yes, if you don’t consider fossil fuel products non-vegan. But, as with many products, you have to be careful to double check the label to make sure “PU leather” really means “PU leather” and not just “leather with a PU coating.”
It’s also important when choosing a leather alternative to consider not only whether it’s vegan or not, but also what impact it has on the environment and our health. There’s lots to think about, but being more conscious about our purchases can only be a good thing and result in better buying decisions.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to leave them in a comment below!
About The Author:
Lisa Williams is a committed vegan, passionate animal welfare advocate, and keen follower of too many v-friendly food blogs to mention. She started happyhappyvegan.com back in 2016 because she felt there was a need for more straightforward information on plant-based living.
Back then, too many sites seem to either concentrate solely on recipes or be too intimidating or inaccessible for the v-curious, and she wanted to change that. The landscape is certainly a whole lot different now!
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- Polyurethanes | What is polyurethane? | https://www.polyurethanes.org/en/what-is-it/
- Jacky Sun | What’s the difference between PU and PVC? | https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/whats-difference-between-pu-pvc-jacky-sun
- Melissa Denchak | Fossil Fuels: The Dirty Facts | https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fossil-fuels-dirty-facts
- Viva! | Slaughter Campaigns | https://viva.org.uk/animals/campaigns/slaughter/
- PubChem | Hydrogen sulfide | https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Hydrogen-sulfide
- PubChem | Ammonia | https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Ammonia
- Lauren Zanolli | Flame retardants: what to know about chemicals in furniture and cables | https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/24/flame-retardants-everyday-products-toxics-guide
- Jessica Davis | Is vegan leather worse for the environment than real leather? | https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/fashion/fashion-news/a30640996/vegan-leather-sustainability/