In the fashion industry, the debate between vegan and traditional leather extends far beyond mere style preferences, touching on both materials' environmental, ethical, and practical implications. 

What is the difference between vegan leather and real leather?

The distinction between vegan and traditional leather revolves primarily around their origins and production processes. 

Understanding Vegan Leather

Vegan, or “faux leather,” is an alternative to traditional leather. It is typically made from synthetic materials, but some plant-based vegan leathers exist.

  • PVC (polyvinyl chloride): Known for its durability and water resistance, PVC is a common choice for vegan leather products.
  • PU (polyurethane): A versatile material that effectively mimics the texture and appearance of leather.
  • Plant-based leathers (e.g., Piñatex): Sustainable alternatives from natural sources like pineapple leaves, cork, and apple peels.

Pros of Vegan Leather

  • Cruelty-free: Vegan leather offers a guilt-free option for consumers concerned about animal welfare.
  • Potentially lower carbon emissions: Depending on the synthetic material used, vegan leather production can have a smaller environmental footprint than traditional leather.

Cons of Vegan Leather

  • Often made from plastics: Many vegan leather varieties are derived from plastic-based materials, raising concerns about sustainability and biodegradability.
  • Less durable: Vegan leather is less durable than authentic leather, impacting the longevity of the item’s usage.
  • Not biodegradable: The synthetic nature of most vegan leather means it does not decompose naturally, creating more landfill waste and releasing chemicals into the surrounding environment.

Understanding Traditional Leather

A series of traditional leather bags and purses by Will Leather Goods.

Traditional leather is derived from animal hides through a meticulous tanning process that transforms raw hides into a durable and versatile material. The production process typically involves:

  • Curing: Preserving the hides through salting and drying.
  • Tanning: Treating the cured hides with tannins to prevent decay and impart desired characteristics.
  • Finishing: Applying dyes, oils, and finishes to enhance the appearance and texture of the leather.

Pros of Traditional Leather

  • Durable: Traditional leather is renowned for its longevity. It is often kept as a keepsake or heirloom.
  • Biodegradable: Being a natural material, traditional leather decomposes organically at the end of its lifecycle.
  • Reduces waste: Traditional leather production helps reduce waste by utilizing meat industry by-products. This practice mitigates waste, as the skins and hides might otherwise go to landfills. Will Leather Goods uses a “tip to tail” philosophy to ensure no leather goes to waste.

Cons of Traditional Leather

  • Involves animal farming: Traditional leather production necessitates using animal hides, but studies have shown that the meat industry (not leather production) determines the number of cows raised.
  • Resource usage: Leather production requires water, land, and energy resources, contributing to environmental impact. However, processing technologies have significantly improved, with many manufacturers now employing better environmental practices like water recycling and circular economics to reduce waste. 
  • Chemical tanning processes: Traditional tanning methods often involve harsh chemicals. That said, advances in tanning (like vegetable tanning) minimize pollution to reduce the carbon footprint associated with leather production. This is why we offer various vegetable-tanned leather goods.

Is vegan leather easier to clean than leather?

Yes, vegan leather is generally easier to clean than traditional leather. Being synthetic, vegan leather is less porous and doesn’t absorb liquids and stains as easily. This makes it more resistant to spills and easier to maintain day-to-day.

However, while caring for traditional leather might require a bit more effort, this care's benefits are significant and rewarding. 

Traditional leather is renowned for its durability, longevity, and ability to age gracefully when properly maintained. It develops a rich patina (highly valued among leather enthusiasts) that makes each piece unique and personal.

Care and Maintenance of Vegan Leather

Ensuring the longevity and condition of vegan leather products requires proper care and maintenance practices tailored to the unique characteristics of synthetic materials.

Cleaning Tips

To keep vegan leather looking its best, consider the following cleaning tips.

  • Use a mild soap: Avoid harsh chemicals or solvents that can damage the material's integrity and finish.
  • Use a damp cloth: Gently wipe the surface of the vegan leather item with a damp cloth to remove dirt and stains.

Other Maintenance Tips

Proper maintenance is essential to prevent cracking or peeling of vegan leather goods.

  • Avoid direct sunlight: Store vegan leather items away from direct sunlight to prevent fading and deterioration.
  • Maintain adequate ventilation: Ensure proper ventilation in storage areas to prevent moisture buildup, which can lead to mold growth.
  • Avoid prolonged exposure to harsh environments: Shield vegan leather items from extreme heat, humidity, or abrasive surfaces that may accelerate wear and tear.
  • Provide regular maintenance: Periodically inspect and clean vegan leather products to address any signs of wear before they escalate.

Care and Maintenance of Traditional Leather

A woman wearing her traditional leather backpack from Will Leather Goods in her backyard.

Traditional leather products exude timeless elegance and sophistication. They require care and maintenance to maintain their beauty and durability over time.

Cleaning Tips

For traditional leather items, follow these cleaning tips to maintain their pristine condition.

  • Use leather cleaners: To effectively remove dirt and stains, use specialized or natural leather cleaners designed for the type of leather.
  • Condition: Regularly apply leather conditioner to nourish the material, restore moisture, and enhance suppleness.

Read Eco-Friendly Leather Care Products and Practices for other cleaning tips.

Other Maintenance Tips

Proper maintenance is crucial for preserving traditional leather goods' shape, integrity, and lifespan.

  • Maintain shape: Store leather items in a manner that retains their shape, avoiding excessive bending or pressure that can lead to creases.
  • Prevent moisture damage: Keep leather products in a cool, dry place away from direct heat sources to prevent moisture accumulation that can cause mold or mildew.
  • Regular conditioning: Apply leather conditioner periodically to replenish natural oils, prevent drying out, and maintain the leather's flexibility.
  • Avoiding harsh elements: To prevent damage and discoloration, shield leather items from harsh environmental factors such as direct sunlight, extreme temperatures, and humidity.

Read our Leather Care guide for more tips and tricks to keep your leather in top condition.

Making Informed Choices in Leather

Ultimately, choosing vegan and traditional leather should align with your ethics, lifestyle needs, and environmental concerns. By appreciating each's unique qualities and care requirements, you can enjoy the beauty and utility of leather goods while adhering to your values.