How do you tell if clothing items, furniture, or shoes are real leather or one of its many alternatives? When out shopping for leather products, it's difficult to see any difference.
Polyurethane leather (PU) is an artificial leather made of thermoplastic polymer often used in the fashion industry. It's completely synthetic and vegan, much cheaper than real leather made from animal skins.
Polyurethane is a widely used alternative for real leather, man-made and animal-friendly. On the other hand, real leather kills billions of animals every year in the global apparel and textile industry alone.
Every day, animal pelts and skins are used to make clothing materials such as leather. Animals products and byproducts make coats, jackets, shoes, bels, gloves, hats, and other accessories.
Let's have a closer look at what polyurethane leather is and how it fares against real leather.
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What is polyurethane leather
PU leathers, or polyurethane leathers, are artificially-made leathers from thermoplastic polymers. Pure fabrics made of polyurethane only are cruelty-free and completely synthetic.
Polyurethane leathers are easier to care for, strong, durable, and considered environmentally friendly. They can also be produced in a wider variety of styles, patterns, and colors than real leather can.
Some fabrics used in the fashion industry or for household items are made from blends of different materials. Some examples are Bicast leather and bonded leather.
Bicast leather, also known as bi-cast leather or bycast leather, is a material made with a split leather backing, created from the corium left once the top-grain has been separated from the hide, and an artificial coating of polyurethane or vinyl, originally invented for the textile industry, later adopted for furniture.
Bonded leather, also called reconstituted leather or blended leather is a leather-like material that contains animal hide, made of a layered structure of shredded leather fibers mixed with polyurethane. It differs from Bicast leather, which is made from solid leather pieces. Bonded leather is made from shredded leather scraps with bonding materials.
Other kinds of artificial leather include PVC leather. Some leather alternatives are also made from renewable and natural sources such as wood, food waste, or algae.
The advantages of polyurethane leather compared to real leather are:
- Easy to care for
- Cruelty-free and vegan
- Very versatile
- Strong and durable
- Doesn't fade easily
- Doesn't dry out over time
- More sustainable than real leather
The drawbacks of polyurethane leather are:
- Synthetic look and feel
- Not breathable
- Requires chemicals
- Easily damaged
- Doesn't last decades like real leather can
- Not biodegradable in many cases
Is polyurethane leather biodegradable
Polyurethane makes a great artificial leather, a completely synthetic and vegan alternative to real leather. It's considered more sustainable than textiles made from animals as it requires fewer resources, land, water, chemicals, and energy. It has many environmental benefits over real leather.
However, not all polyurethane leathers are biodegradable. Polyurethanes require a unique set of design rules and properties to be biodegradable, according to the latest research.
They need biocompatible components, bioactivity, and a high degradation rate to decompose quickly. They are typically prepared from polyester polyols, aliphatic diisocyanates, and chain extenders.
How to check if it's made from polyurethane
Most major brands offer animal-free leather today. You can find many affordable options at Top Shop and Zara, as well as high-quality designer clothes at Stella McCartney, made from sustainable polyurethane leather.
Look for clothing with the vegan leather indication. High-quality animal-free leather is often made from synthetic alternatives such as polyurethane.
Corn Waste Leather (CWL) is another great environmentally friendly option. It's a bio-based material made from waxed canvas with 50% corn waste from the food industry and biodegradable polyurethane. The sneaker label Veja uses CWL for its latest vegan shoe release called Urca.
One of the best ways to tell the difference between polyurethane leather and real leather is to look at the labels. The label may say PU or Polyurethane. Unfortunately, animal-derived materials such as real leather are often deliberately mislabeled.
Their production often occurs in countries where animal welfare laws are non-existent. There is no easy way to trace what animal was killed to make the clothes you find in high street stores.
If labels are missing, check the retail price of the clothing piece you are about to buy. Since polyurethane leather is much more affordable than real leather, you can tell if a material is animal-free if its cost is low. Polyurethane leather is much cheaper to produce than real leather made from animal skins.
Polyurethane leather is also water-repellant. You can try a water test to differentiate real leather. PU leather won't absorb any liquid whereas real leather generally will.
If you are familiar with leather products and by-products, you easily tell if polyurethane is used with the look, feel, and smell of the item. PU leather often has a synthetic, plastic, or chemical look, feel, and smell that real leather doesn't have.
Real leather has some imperfections, grain, and small bumps throughout the skin. In comparison, polyurethane leather is almost perfect. PU leather is also lightweight, a little lighter than real leather.
Real leather tends to get better looking and softer over time. In contrast, PU leather maintains a consistent look and feel throughout its life.
However, the appeal of polyurethane leather is its appearance and texture close to that of genuine leather. It's difficult to tell the difference just by looking at it.
What's wrong with real leather
Leather is a material made from the skin of an animal and commonly used in the fashion industry, where billions of animals are brutally slaughtered every year to make jackets, coats, boots, handbags, and other accessories.
2.29 billion cows, calves, buffaloes, goats, and pigs were killed for their hide and skin to make leather in 2018, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Many other types of animals are killed to produce leather, such as seals, sheep, deer, alligators, snakes, zebras, sharks, even cats, and dogs.
Endangered animals are also being trapped and skinned for fashion. The leather trade threatens many animal species that should be protected, including a vast number of reptiles, kangaroos, ostriches, beavers, wild cats, bears, antelopes.
To produce leather, animals suffer immense pain. They are trapped, caged, and often skinned alive. They lived in inhumane conditions, in crowded environments, deprived of liberty, and subjected to painful treatments.
Leather tanning is also damaging to the environment, ecosystems, and human health. Animal-derived textiles are processed with tons of harmful chemicals that pollute rivers, water sources, and soils when released untreated into the nearby environment.
And buying leather goods doesn't prevent waste from the meat industry. Leather isn't just a byproduct of animals slaughtered for their meat. The leather industry is already very lucrative on its own.
Skins and hides are the most valuable parts of animals, as reported by Bloomberg. The highest quality and most expensive leather is also made from very young animals that have smooth skin, and no scratch or parasite yet.
Fortunately, conscious consumers around the world are avoiding clothes, bags, shoes, and accessories made from animals. They choose cruelty-free and eco-friendly alternatives, such as polyurethane leather, which can be biodegradable, recyclable, and made from natural resources.
What we choose to wear has huge social and environmental impacts. Animal-derived materials are unethical and cause irreversible damage to the environment and human health.
Fashion can be stylish, high-quality, affordable, and animal-free. No animal should have to suffer to make beautiful and functional clothes. Animal cruelty has no place in modern society.
Let's change the textile and apparel industry to create a fashion world that moves away from mindless consumerism and protects the environment, where all humans and animals are cared for.
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.