Updated May 13, 2021 by Paras Doshi, founder of Doshi Vegan Bags and Accessories
What is vegan leather?
Vegan leather is any material that can be used as an animal leather alternative but which has no animal content. Vegan leather was historically made using synthetic materials like vinyl and polyurethane (PU) but can also be made from organic materials like pineapple fibers. This leads to a number of questions as to what material is good for the animals, environment, and durability.
Most people are familiar with PU leather. The interesting thing about PU is that it's actually mostly polyester or nylon with a thin coating of polyurethane on top so PU is mostly, not PU. Is PU leather vegan? Yes, but as we'll discuss in this article, it's not something that you want.
What about all of these vegan leathers that are made from plants? Most of them are like the standard PU discussed above in that they aren't really plant based. Most companies have just found a way to attach a very thin layer of plant based material from the bark of cork trees, apples, or cactus onto a poly-cotton backing and call this vegan leather. It's stretching the truth... a lot. At the moment the closest that we have to plant based, non-synthetic vegan leathers are Pinatex (non woven material made from pineapple bio waste), Mycelium (Mushroom Leather), and Kraft Paper.
*Note the makers of Pinatex prefer for their material not to be labeled as a vegan leather.
We often get asked: If you're not using animal leather than what is it?
We most often get the question - if it isn't (animal) leather than what is it made of? Among the different materials available to replace leather, we use Microfiber PU as our vegan leather. Of course there's no animal content in the material but we preserve the moniker "leather" to give people an idea of what the material will feel like. Microfiber is the key term as Microfiber based vegan leather is the highest grade of synthetic leather commercially available in the market today.
Microfiber vegan leather consists of two parts.
1) Microfiber base - The microfiber base is the most important part of the material. The microfiber is unlike clothing in that it is non-woven. Instead of being woven like cloth, the microfibers are made to coagulate in three dimensions so that they mimic the structure of skin. The resulting material is soft, supple, breathable, and much more durable than the any alternative that we have tested. These qualities are the key difference between the material that we use and ordinary PU discussed above. Ordinary PU has a woven base material which stretches and does not hold the top coat of polyurethane coat well. In the long run, bags made of ordinary PU crack and peel.
2) Polyurethane top coat - The polyurethane on top helps create different looks, textures, and feels. In our materials, the adhesion to the microfiber base layer is extremely strong.
The resulting material is generally extremely durable and often outperforms leather in a variety of tests. Microfiber suede generally does not require any polyurethane at all. When considering the manufacturing process for animal leather, vegan leather is much more sustainable - especially when it comes from factories that minimize use of water and solvents. Factories making microfiber vegan leather often understand that this premium material is being chosen intentionally by high end brands. They are the most motivated amongst the material suppliers to offer quality products that are often also eco-friendly. Some factories are starting to offer materials that feature a recycled base material.
The vegan leather that looks like animal leather (Microfiber) actually performs and lasts like high quality animal leather. Ordinary PU (top left) is a cheap substitute that has been used for decades. It is unfortunate that companies using this cheap material are simply changing their marketing and passing off a cheap substitute as vegan leather to capitalize on the vegan market. We're vegans committed to bring you the best, not fooling our community.
Not all synthetic leather is made equally. Microfiber PU is the closest material to what we might term true "vegan leather."
In the manufacturing world, most companies use alternatives to leather to make lower grade products. These alternatives often lack durability on many levels - peeling, crocking and tensile strength to name a few. These lower grade products have hardware and construction methods that match the quality of the material.
Manufacturing is a cost driven industry and so to varying degrees, you get what you pay for. We never wanted to put cheap products into the market and so most of our products will use forms of microfiber leather or microfiber suede. We do not use polyester based polyurethane in any of our goods and never use PVC (polyvinyl chloride) as the main material (though it may be present if we ever use rubber like feet for a bag). So far, we have not used PVC either.
Microfiber leather and microfiber suede are the only true animal leather alternatives as they were intentionally made to mimic the hand feel of leather and often outperform leather in durability. Of course microfiber leather has several grades as well. We continuously look for materials that meet higher performance standards and almost always wind up purchasing the highest end vegan leathers from the most expensive material factories (see our alligator inspired vegan leather here!). We can't help it. We love durable, beautiful materials and we want our customers to have the very best.
Eco-Friendly and Sustainable Materials
While our microfiber based vegan leather is an amazing material, our long term goal is to shift our material use away from petroleum based products and use materials that are recycled, recyclable, and biodegradable. To that end, we have been using Kraft Paper (check out our kraft paper tote!), an ultra-durable paper which does not breakdown when wet. Kraft Paper is an under appreciated material that is lightweight, durable, and to large extent, biodegradable. The core component of Kraft paper is cellulose.
We also introduced cork, which we appreciate but are not completely in love with because cork materials do not stand on their own. They require a backing which is often polyester. However, cork points us in the right direction, moving towards plant based materials. Many people have asked us about using materials such as apple leather and most recently, cactus leather. Both of these materials are similar to cork in that the base material is largely polyester, cotton, or a poly-cotton blend. When this is the case, we often believe that it is only marginally beneficial to use these materials. To call any of these materials, cork, apple or cactus leather as such is misleading in that these materials make up, in our estimation, less than 10% of the actual material. While we appreciate the efforts, we believe that to truly be considered a vegan leather, the material should do more than add a top coating or top layer to a mostly standard material.
Perhaps the most exciting and well known material we will soon have products made from is Pinatex. We have started production with Pinatex (derived from waste pineapple fiber) and will have products available later in 2021. Pinatex is most of what we are looking for in a material. It is up to 80% biodegradable and starts off as plant waste from pineapple harvests in the Philippines. The company making this material, aims to make it 100% biodegradable over time. Our only issue with this material is price. It is an expensive material, 3 to 4 times more expensive than our high end microfiber leather and 30 to 40 times more expensive than ordinary PU (low end imitation leather).
We often have friends ask us if we've heard of mushrooms leather. The answer is Yes. We're always super excited about finding non-petroleum based materials and so we contacted the mushroom leather supplier. Their cost of materials is (no exaggeration) 20x to 100x the cost of a high quality microfiber leather available in the market today. It's rather impractical. When the cost of these materials and availability becomes more reasonable, we'll provide those materials to you. And here's another way to think about it, instead of us producing a mushroom leather briefcase that we'll market for $1,000, buy one of our's for $200, give the $800 to a responsible charity that supports the causes you believe in and know that you've made a greater difference in everyone's life. Smart is better than novel.
We push and specify that our suppliers use quality components. Our philosophy is simply that if you don't have to replace your goods that much longer, we don't have to use resources to replace that product.