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April 03, 2023 10 min read
High-quality leather products have always held a special place in history. They’ve been used in everything from jackets to handbags to smaller items like wallets and watch straps. In a world where the fast fashion industry churns out clothes in unsustainable quantities, polluting the air, soil, and water, leathers provide security.
A significant change in the last century of leather production is the hunt for new sources. In the past, these leather alternatives went by the name “faux leather.” Today, there’s a new alternative, and its name is vegan leather.
Natural leather, or animal leather, is inherently an animal product. It’s also what we will be referring to when we say “leather” in this article without specifying the type. Once it’s harvested, leather goes through a complex production cycle to become the product it is.
Simplified, the first step is preparing it for transportation to a tannery. From there, the material is cleaned and then placed in a vat of a tanning agent. Afterward, the material is dyed and coated with protective materials. Lastly, the leather is processed into the end product.
The above process has taken centuries to develop and takes weeks or months to perform. The main desire behind vegan leather has two considerations:
The first consideration is ethics. Proponents of vegan leather want a product that has zero reliance on animals.
The second consideration is the environmental impact. The belief is that the long-term costs of leather production can be reasonably reduced through vegan alternatives.
Though vegan leather, using that phrasing, is a somewhat new concept, the search for leather alternatives is actually older. Though small-scale efforts have occurred for centuries, the real history of vegan leather began at the end of the 19th century and was made with layered paper pulp.
Vegan leather has its origins at the beginning of plastic production. The first internationally-renowned synthetic leather appeared in 1920. With Naugahyde, the U.S. Rubber Company sought to create an artificial material that was comparable to leather.
An alternate name for this artificial leather was “faux leather” or “fake leather.” For several decades, Naugahyde was the most significant producer of leather alternatives, even as the market for products grew.
Of course, this original leather alternative was plagued by its own problem: Plastics. By the 1970s, questions about biodegradability and longevity entered the leather alternatives world. The word pleather, or plastic leather, took on a negative connotation.
The desire to have a quality, vegan replacement for traditional leather products was still there. The industry would have to look elsewhere in order to solve ethical and sustainability issues.
The solution was plant-based leathers. Cork, pineapple, and other materials began to make a transition into our daily goods.
The latest evolution in the vegan leather industry is happening right now, all thanks to one plant: The cactus.
As a leather alternative, cactus and other plant-based fibers reign supreme. Only certain materials have what it takes to compare to the best of traditional leather goods. Below, we’ll explain how they achieve this status.
There are two main types of vegan leather products: synthetic and plant-based.
Synthetic leathers are created in a process significantly different from traditional leather. To begin with, synthetic leathers use a porous base material like cotton or polyester. Later in the process, these will be coated with an external coating of plastic.
The types of plastics used in synthetic leather vary, both in how they are produced and in the end product. PVC and PU, or polyvinyl chloride and polyurethane, are two of the more popular options. They usually rely on petroleum and the chemical transformation of polymers to create flexible materials.
Once you have the base material and the plastic, further chemical production is needed to bind the two together. Oftentimes plastic is melted directly onto the base material. Lastly, the melted fabric is cut into whatever shape is desired.
It’s impossible to see how PU leather gave the leather alternative a bad name for decades, isn’t it?
We’d like to next compare plant-based leather goods.
Plant-based leather can be made from a variety of materials, from tree bark to pineapple leaves. Among all plant-based leathers, cactus leather is experiencing a high point, with even Mercedes-Benz embracing it. To give confidence to lovers of quality, traditional leather goods, the harvesting and creation process is surprisingly similar.
First, the cactus is shorn of fully grown leaves, allowing the plant to continue growing. From there, the cactus pads are cleaned, separated, and dried in the sun. Incidentally, sun-drying is the oldest known technique when it comes to natural leather production.
From there, the dried cactus is used to form a bio-resin, which is then settled on a base material. This last part is somewhat necessary: It would take a remarkably large cactus to even make a small bag.
Cacti make for one of the most easily cultivated plants for leather production. That is what makes them so exciting for the future of vegan leather.
People choose vegan leather items for a variety of reasons. Rather, they choose them for a variety of values. As has been showcased above, vegan products haven’t always met the standard many would hope for.
As an eco-friendly product, one can ideally hope to be doing good for the environment by choosing vegan products over other types. Of course, quality products can’t come from nothing. Everything we design, build, and create has to have some sort of cost. The principle of environmentally friendly products is to reduce that cost within the production process.
The fashion world didn't know how bad synthetic materials were for the environment. Now that we know better, we can turn our eyes to better alternatives. Part of that is not just investing in them but also understanding them.
Vegan leather has the potential to last as long as many leather products. To do that, it must be taken care of.
Cleaning and caring for vegan leather is fairly similar to caring for traditional leather. Proper care can help maintain color, clear up stains, and reduce the risk of unsightly cracking.
Every lather good will get dusty from time to time, as do all things. In case of dust or dirt, a simple wiping with a microfiber cloth can go a long way. If there is a significant amount of dirt, dipping your cloth in warm water beforehand can help. Most leather products are water-resistant, vegan products in particular, but you don’t want to saturate the piece.
Though cactus leather and many plastics resist water better than traditional leathers, you can still take extra measures to protect your pieces. Water-proofing sprays won’t likely do much harm, but they also aren’t really needed. Keep in mind that cork leather is rarely waterproof, unlike other vegan materials.
Attend to stains immediately. Dab (don’t rub) the stain with a soft wet cloth. Don’t use chemical cleaning sprays.
The one thing to make sure you avoid is high heat. It can potentially warp or prematurely age your goods. To fight this aging, you can easily use a leather cream on your pieces. The linked cream uses a mixture of triple-filtered beeswax, seed oils, and lipids to restore and protect leather pieces.
It used to be that vegan leather was a completely different product from traditional, natural leather. Now, with an elevated focus on quality, the two have never been closer in competition.
We’re now close to having a complete overview of what vegan leather is and, furthermore, what makes it so remarkable. All that is left is to do a final analysis of the absolute pros and cons of the two. Once that’s done, we’ll be ready to make a final comparison against traditional leather products.
We’re going to break down the benefits of vegan leather into two categories: plastic-based and plant-based. Though both are technically vegan, they are dissimilar enough that they deserve to be discussed separately.
For plastic-based vegan leather, the benefits include:
For plant-based vegan leather, the benefits include:
In addition to both of these qualities, neither plant-based nor plastic-based leathers rely on animals. In the final analysis, both types of vegan leather have many traits meriting their recommendation. However, how do these pros compare to their cons? Next, we’ll explore the drawbacks these products may have.
Vegan leather has a whole host of benefits, but there are some drawbacks, even with all the amazing qualities they have.
For plastic, these are the drawbacks:
Plant-based leathers are a more attractive alternative than plastic-based leather pieces. They aren’t quite perfect, however. For plants, drawbacks include:
The last question: How do they compare to the real thing?
We have three different types of leather to compare: Natural leather, plastic-based vegan leather, and plant-based vegan leather.
We’ll start by eliminating plastic-based vegan leather from contention here. Plastics do technically address some of the by-product concerns about the leather industry.
However, they do so by bringing in plastic materials and a whole host of other environmental issues. Especially with the availability of natural materials like plants, they are by far the weakest leather option.
There are several points of comparison between plant-based cactus leather and traditional leather products:
Cactus leather costs as much as full-grain or top-grain leather, with comparable quality. While you can find cheaper natural leather products, both types are equivalent at their relative price points.
Natural leather, with greater visibility, is available in many more options, styles, and dye colors than cactus leather. In this category, at least, it is the definitive winner.
Cactus leather takes more time to produce while waiting for harvesting, but the water cost is significantly less. We have, through its existence, the first truly sustainable leather alternative.
Natural leather and cactus leather look remarkably similar. Cactus leather is even breathable like regular leather, unlike other vegan alternatives.
Cactus leather, in theory, can last for up to a decade. That lifespan might be even longer for goods that are used lightly, though apparel and phone cases are naturally different. Natural, full-grain leather may last even longer, but a decade is an admirable length of time.
Cactus pulls ahead in some aspects, and the same applies to natural leather. Blow for blow; the two are fairly evenly matched.
Now to answer our question: How does vegan leather hold up to the real thing?
Not all vegan leather is created equally. There are plenty of substandard or simply okay, products. But with cactus leather, the first real challenger to natural leather has emerged.
Vegan leather is ready to shed the negative image created by pleather.
Cactus leather isn’t a perfect 1:1 replacement for the leather industry, nor will it likely ever be. It doesn’t have precisely the same properties of it. The circumstances of its harvesting make it tricky to scale to meet the extent of an entire industry. If you want a high-quality good that’s also sustainable, it can meet that requirement with aplomb.
Full-grain leather is considered the pinnacle of the material, the best that can possibly be provided. At Andar, the best is simply the standard. When investing in something, why settle for less than everything one is capable of?
It should be telling, then, that among vegan alternatives, cactus leather is the only one represented alongside other natural leathers.
Of course, it’s not just about the material. It’s about what the material is supporting. Our everyday items need to hold up well to respond to the travails of daily life. The material for our bags, wallets, cases, and more, should last for years.
And in that regard, cactus leather succeeds. Our final verdict on the matter:
Cactus leather is excellent and possibly the best vegan leather alternative to date. Though there will always be a place for high-end leather, there will also be room for alternatives. In that sphere, cactus is here to stay.
Fast Fashion and Its Environmental Impact | Earth.Org
What Is Cactus Leather? Is It Sustainable? I Tree Hugger
Chart: How We Eat, Drink and Breathe Microplastics | Statista