Vegan Leather Explained: [Polyurethane] [Cork] [Cotton][Paper]

How does vegan leather compare to real leather?

Is it a safe alternative to leather? What vegan options are available?

We're going to discuss all of these points in this article.

Cork Wallet

From the Etsy Shop, Corker!

Leather is a reliable source of sturdy, long-lasting clothes, bags, accessories, and furniture.

For this reason and more, leather is regarded as one of the most popular and desirable materials humans can use to make things with.

There are many people who choose not to use leather for ethical reasons or for any number of other reasons.

While it would be almost impossible to find a substance with all the same qualities as real leather, many alternatives can still get the job done.

The materials that can do this without the use of cowhide leather or other animal products are dubbed vegan leather.

What exactly is vegan leather?

Let's explore that question to see what kind of leather alternatives are available.

Please note, this article is not intended as a negative article towards veganism or vegan leather in anyway, shape or form.

Crafting and handmade artisans should be supported and appreciated, no matter what material they decide to use.

PU Leather (Polyurethane)

The name "vegan leather" can apply to a variety of different products, but one of the most common materials under this banner is plastic.

Plastics like polyurethane, PVC, and various composite microfibers are often used in creating leather-like substances, especially for furniture.

They result in a material very similar in feel and appearance to authentic leather with a wide range of uses due to its flexibility and versatility in manufacturing.

While they may not use animal products, plastic-based faux leather is far from eco-friendly.

For one, these plastics are made from petroleum, the drilling for which can be a costly and pollution-heavy endeavor.

Not only that, these materials require an extremely long amount of time to break down when discarded into a landfill, meaning they'll stay as trash for years.

That's not all, though.

When PVC and other plastics do break down, they release harmful toxins into the air and ground like dioxins known to cause cancer and various other ailments to live creatures while wreaking havoc on the environment.

While making real leather isn't entirely without issue itself, it's safe to say that faux leather made from plastics is far more destructive.

Additionally, while plastic-based leather substitutes are typically more water resistant than the real deal, they do not share leather's durability in other areas.

Despite being generally robust enough to withstand normal wear and tear, persistent use or rough situations cause plastic-based leather to degrade quickly, peeling apart and cracking.

They also lack the breathability of natural leather, though they are easier to sew with in the event of repairs or making your own clothing.

Cork Leather

The idea of wearing cork - yes, like the kind you put in the end of a wine bottle - might sound a bit strange to people, but it's actually one of the better leather alternatives available for many reasons.

For starters, cork-based leather is entirely biodegradable given that it's made from cork oak trees.

This means you don't have to fear what may happen when it's outlived its usefulness and gets thrown out.

The fact that it does not need to be tanned or otherwise processed save for its initial shaping makes it extra environmentally friendly to produce, even more so than real leather.

So long as the trees used in its construction are harvested responsibly, there's little to worry about from that angle.

Cork leather isn't all sunshine and rainbows, though, as everything has a downside.

For starters, the color pallet of most cork leather products is relatively limited, sticking mostly to the natural cork coloration of the material.

Additionally, actually finding cork leather-based clothes or furniture can be a chore all on its own, as very few shops and designers have taken to the material despite its relative ease of use.

Additionally, cork leather is not as durable or long-lasting as real leather.

Cork leather can be torn and punctured more easily than real leather. It's also more susceptible to staining and tarnishes if not adequately protected.

While its natural look is good for hiding damage in some instances, it can be difficult to repair.

Cork Wallet

Cork wallet from InesJewerlyFinding


Yes, even cloth can be used to make a leather substitute. Another fairly green alternative, cotton leather is an interesting if a limited option.

Cotton leather is made by pressing pieces of cotton into a thin, paper-like substance cut into the desired shape.

Compacting the material like this helps increase its durability significantly while retaining many of the wearable qualities inherent with cotton fabrics.

One significant benefit of cotton leather is its breathability, matching or even surpassing real leather.

It's also reasonably comfortable to wear, having a smooth, somewhat soft texture to it.

The way it's created also makes it easy to use in manufacturing, giving companies or even individuals a full degree of freedom in what they wish to make with it.

Unfortunately, cotton leather just can't stand up to abuse the same way other vegan or real leather products can.

While still decently durable, it is still cotton and can be cut, pierced, or torn with greater ease than its competition.

Though good news for sewing, it's probably not the right choice for protective clothing.

cotton wallet


Possibly one of the oldest leather alternatives available, specific processing techniques can give paper leather-like qualities with surprisingly good results.

Known in German as Prestoff, this paper leather is made from treated paper pulp compressed into different shapes.

The result is a startlingly durable product with many of the same qualities as leather. It can also be manufactured in an array of colors because it's paper, giving it the edge in aesthetics to a certain degree.

For all its good points, though, Prestoff is somewhat underwhelming if you're trying to switch from real leather.

Most of its good points are, in one way or another, merely a slight downgrade from actual leather. For example, while paper leather is relatively durable and flexible, it can still be destroyed much easier than hide.

Not only that, Prestoff is still subject to many of the same limitations as the material it's made from. Repeated bending and flexing can cause it to wear down at the seams, as can moisture.

It's not uncommon for paper-based leathers to just fall apart after time as they're pushed past their breaking point.

Final Thoughts

There are many great vegan leather alternatives, each with their own pros and cons that can make even die-hard leather fans take a second look.

However, if you're looking into leather alternatives to support, it's important to know all the facts before you buy.

Our Recommendation

If you dislike leather and want a vegan alternative, I'd recommend cork, cotton, and paper.

Stay away from the plastic option!