Back in the 1980s, vegetarianism started to gain mass cultural popularity as a newer, more ‘conscious’ lifestyle. Although the growth of that trend has slowed in the subsequent decades, the past few years has led to a new wave of animal rights advocates, refusing to eat or consume any type of animal products, now more commonly referred to as veganism.

The popularity of interest in vegan products can be seen in the massive increase in people identifying as vegans — in 2014 only 1% of the U.S. population identified themselves as vegan, but in 2017, that number grew to 6%, a 600% increase.

As technology continues to improve ways in which we are able to use synthetic materials to replicate real life animal based products (like how consumers are gobbling away at the Impossible Burger), the fashion industry is no different.

Being more conscious about the environment and sustainability are major trends in fashion and accessories in 2019, with the use of real leather versus vegan leather regularly brought up as a point of contention.

What is Vegan Leather exactly?

Vegan leather is a petroleum-based material that uses plasticizers in order to create (and mimic) the soft, malleable hand feel of real leather. It’s often used interchangeably with the term ‘faux leather’ or ‘PU leather’, and while there are different ways of making vegan leather, they’re often referring to the same material.

Because it uses synthetic materials, there are different ways that vegan or faux leather can be made. It’s commonly manufactured though using Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU) or Polyvinylchloride (PVC). Both have their merits, but most brands and faux leather enthusiasts prefer TPU over PVC as it does not contain phthalates and is therefore considered more eco-friendly (phthalates contribute to greenhouse emissions and are considered a harmful chemical by the State of California).

The leather look and hand feel appearance is achieved through various processing and leather finishing techniques like embossing, buffing, and suede. During the manufacturing process, vegan leather is also processed with many different finishings in order to achieve a patent leather, metallic, suede, or colorful dye appearance.

The result is a piece of synthetic material that can look, smell, and feel like real leather to the casual observer, but in reality is made from non-animal products. Its animal free and environmentally friendly impact makes it a great substitute to animal leather products in backpacks, bags, or any other type of small leather goods where real leather is traditionally used.  

What are the benefits of using vegan leather bags?

Animal Friendly

While much of the leather used in the textile industry is actually a byproduct of the cows that are used in the food (meat) industry, there are indeed facilities that breed and raise cows and other animals for the sole purpose of using their hide in leather based products. So, the most obvious benefit of purchasing a vegan leather bag is to take a stand against the use of animal based products in human consumption.

Lower Cost

Other, less clear benefits of vegan leather bags can be seen in the cost structure and versatility of vegan leather materials in bag making. Compared to real leather, production of vegan leather is much more cost efficient.

Because it doesn’t rely on single animal hides, vegan leather can be manufactured at much larger scales and at cheaper costs. Lower material costs often are passed on from the brands to consumers in the form of cheaper leather bags and goods (although there are designer brands that use vegan leather without reducing the price tag).

Wider Range of Styles

Vegan leather bags also give designers more room for creativity and experimentation with color and design patterns. Because it’s a synthetic material, vegan leather can be dyed to a wide color palette, including colors that might not be possible using real leather. The same can be said with pattern finishings, as there’ more options for types of finishings and polishings.

More Efficient Production

With real leather, there is generally more waste and inefficiency from usage during the manufacturing process because everything is cut from a single hide. The smallest mark or leather imperfection can cause an entire section of hide to be unusable, whereas vegan leather can be made without any of these inconsistencies.

Lightweight and Water Resistant

Another lesser known benefit that vegan leather has over animal based leather is that it’s often lighter and more water resistant. Because of the range of finishing options, vegan leather can be made to be highly water resistant (or even waterproof), whereas real leather is subject to different levels of water resistance or water damage depending on the layers of coating. Vegan leather is also more lightweight, again attributed to it’s material composition.

What are the downsides of using vegan leather bags?

Although vegan leather’s popularity shouldn’t be understated, it also isn’t without its opposition. The main points that people for the use of real leather bring up can be summed up as:

Quality & Handfeel

The most striking argument against vegan leather bags is that the quality just isn’t as nice as that of a real leather bag. Although the degree of this will depend on the quality of the vegan leather (including which material it’s primarily composed of), many leather purists point to how vegan leather still doesn’t match the quality, handfeel and durability of real leather, and the technology in the manufacturing process still has ways to develop.


Humans have used real leather since the earliest civilizations primarily for its durability and ability to withstand years of use and wear and tear. With real leather bags, there’s a durability and timelessness that will maintain the quality of the leather as a bag ages. However, with the use of synthetic leathers, a vegan leather bag will wear out much faster compared to its real leather counterpart.

Indications of wear are seen inform of tearing parts, fading color, plastic chipping, and off-gas. In a vegan leather backpack or handbag, this can probably be seen most frequently in the bottom corners of the bag where there’s more pressure rubbing against the synthetic material. Regular exposure to heat can cause melting and TPU and PVC will degrade over time even when it’s not in use.

Environmental Concerns

Use of PVC based vegan leather is associated with many health and environmental risk. The production of PVC also contributes substantially to greenhouse gases and releases phthalates into the environment. California Proposition 65 bars PVC as a harmful substance as as phthalates can cause long term health problems. Most recently, Tory Burch came under fire for their vegan leather handbags that contained high levels of lead exceeding legal limits.

Final Thoughts

It seems as if one of the trends that will continue to accelerate in the coming decades is the move towards synthetic materials and fibers instead of using their animal related counterparts. We see this revolution in food with the growth in synthetic meats, chickens, and animal based products, and the leather bag or fashion industry is no exception.

While there are merits to both sides of the table, it will be interesting to see how the technology continues to improve means of production and if one day a generation will look back on the use of animal based leather as antiquated, similar to how we view generations that existed prior to the internet and technology era.