Delving into Synthetic Vegan Leathers: PU, Pleather, and More

Written by: Matt



Time to read 12 min

Embark with us on a journey into the realm of synthetic vegan leather - a fascinating world of imitation and innovation, one that continues to evolve and adapt to meet our demands for style, functionality, and sustainability. This article will explore the evolution of synthetic vegan leather, delve deeper into the properties of PU Leather and Silicone Leather, evaluate their environmental impact, and look to the future of this versatile material.

At Rahui, our focus is on plant-based vegan leathers, yet, we recognize the ethical and sustainability improvements that synthetic vegan leathers have over their animal-derived counterparts. In certain applications plant-based vegan leathers are currently unsuitable so synthetic alternatives are an important part of the equation and worth understanding in more detail.

What is Synthetic Vegan Leather?

Imagine the smooth feel of a brand-new wallet, the comforting embrace of a stylish couch, or perhaps the reassuring grip of a car's steering wheel. What's often in common among these experiences is the material at their core - synthetic vegan leather. Known by many names such as PU leather, Polyurethane Leather, Pleather, Vegan Leather, Faux leather, Plastic Leather, and Microfibre leather, this versatile material has woven itself into our daily lives in more ways than we often realize.

Synthetic vegan leather, as its name suggests, is not derived from the hide of animals but is instead a man-made product designed to emulate the texture and versatility of genuine leather. It has gained popularity due to its cost-effectiveness and ethical implications, presenting an alternative that spares the need for animal breeding and the associated cruelty. However, it's important to note that it is essentially plastic, manifesting certain environmental challenges that we'll delve into in later sections.

Unveiling the Spectrum: Types of Synthetic Vegan Leathers

In our quest for sustainable and cruelty-free alternatives to traditional leather, the innovation in synthetic vegan leather has birthed diverse types, each with its own set of characteristics. Let’s delve into the various kinds of synthetic vegan leather, unraveling their unique traits:

  • PU (Polyurethane) Leather:
    • An elegant mimic: PU Leather is revered for its ability to emulate the texture and aesthetics of real leather, all while being budget-friendly.
    • Versatile applications: Its commendable durability and ease of cleaning make it a popular choice for indoor upholstery and automotive interiors.
  • PVC (Poly Vinyl Chloride) Leather:
    • Tough yet affordable: Slightly more robust than PU, PVC Leather holds its ground even in demanding conditions.
    • A double-edged sword: While it's a durable choice, the environmental toll it exacts due to the release of toxins during its lifecycle is a matter of concern.
  • Microfiber Leather:
    • A fusion of fabric and plastic: By bonding a plastic coating to a fabric backing, Microfiber Leather offers a unique amalgam of textures.
    • The legacy of innovation: Variants like Polyamide Microfiber and Poromeric Imitation Leather, the latter pioneered by DuPont in 1963, showcase the innovative spirit in the realm of synthetic vegan leather.
  • Silicone Leather:
    • The new kid on the block: Silicone Leather is carving a niche for itself with superior UV resistance, shape retention, and odor neutrality.
    • A step towards eco-friendliness: Besides retaining desirable characteristics of its predecessors, Silicone Leather heralds a shift towards more sustainable and environmentally friendly production practices.

As we traverse through the landscape of synthetic vegan leather, each type presents a narrative of innovation, ethics, and sustainability. From the budget-friendly charm of PU Leather to the eco-conscious stride of Silicone Leather, the synthetic vegan leather spectrum is rich with choices. The onus is on us to make informed decisions, aligning our purchases with our ethos of cruelty-free and sustainable living, thus contributing to a narrative larger than ourselves.

The Evolution of Synthetic Vegan Leathers: from PVC to PU and Beyond

Early Synthetic Vegan Leathers

Tracing the course of synthetic vegan leather takes us back to the 19th century, marking its origin with an innovation called Presstoff. This early version of artificial leather was invented in Germany from layers of specially treated paper pulp. Its primary use surged during the Second World War as a replacement for rationed genuine leather, showcasing its potential as a versatile and practical substitute. However, the journey of synthetic vegan leather from Presstoff to today's advanced versions is nothing short of remarkable.

As time passed, technological advancements led to the development of more robust and durable synthetic vegan leathers. A pivotal moment came with the introduction of PVC or Polyvinyl Chloride, which offered greater water resistance. This characteristic made it an ideal material for outdoor environments where resistance to cold, heat, or humidity was necessary. This significant upgrade over traditional animal leather positioned synthetic vegan leather as a favorable option for both winter and summer seasons, opening new avenues for its use.

Increased Performance of Pleather

The next major leap in this evolutionary journey was the advent of Pleather - a portmanteau of "plastic" and "leather". Pleather, essentially plastic-based synthetic vegan leather, combined the benefits of PVC with improved flexibility and texture, more closely mimicking the feel of genuine leather. It soon found its application in a plethora of industries, from clothing and upholstery to automotive interiors, owing to its versatility and aesthetic appeal.

The Invention of Polyurethane Leather (PU)

In the quest for a more environmentally friendly and skin-friendly alternative, the synthetic vegan leather industry birthed Polyurethane (PU) leather. Unlike PVC, PU leather could be created without the use of chlorine, a harmful chemical. Its fabrication process allowed for a finer control over the structure and appearance, enabling a closer mimicry of animal leather's texture and breathability. Moreover, PU leather presented an opportunity to move away from the more harmful aspects of PVC, inching the industry towards more sustainable practices.

Recent Developments

Over time manufacturers have continued to innovate and search for even better synthetic alternatives, leading to the transition from traditional Pleather to Silicone-based leathers. Silicone leather marks the latest chapter in the evolution of synthetic vegan leather. It boasts superior UV resistance, shape maintenance, consistency, and an absence of odors - all while retaining the desirable characteristics of its predecessors. This advancement not only redefined the standards for synthetic vegan leather but also set the stage for more sustainable and environmentally friendly production processes, which we will delve into in a later section.

As we embark on this voyage through the history of synthetic vegan leather, it's fascinating to observe how each iteration brought us closer to replicating the natural properties of genuine leather. Yet, at the same time, these advancements have striven to overcome the limitations of natural leather, widening the scope of applications and reducing the environmental footprint. Although much of the recent innovation in this space has been with Plant-Based Leathers, continued innovation in Silicone-based synthetic vegan leathers is helping to move the industry away from more damaging petrochemical-based products.

Understanding PU Leather: An Established Vegan Leather

Sample of black PU leather
Rahui London

As we delve deeper into the realm of synthetic vegan leathers, one type that stands out is polyurethane, or PU leather. This is a type of faux leather that carries certain characteristics that have made it popular in various industries. With its roots firmly planted in technology and chemistry, it's intriguing to see how this material has evolved to become a staple in our everyday lives.

The Allure of PU Leather

PU leather, as previously noted, is a type of artificial leather made from thermoplastic polymer. It's completely artificial and considered vegan, making it an appealing alternative for those seeking cruelty-free products. But beyond ethical considerations, what properties make PU leather such a sought-after material?

Firstly, PU leather boasts a high level of durability. This toughness allows it to withstand daily wear and tear, a feature that makes it ideal for products that are used frequently. Furthermore, PU leather retains its shape well over time, resisting wrinkles and creases. Secondly, PU leather is easy to clean. Unlike genuine leather, which requires specific cleaning products and methods, PU leather can be cleaned with simple soap and water, making it a convenient option for busy lifestyles.

Industries Embracing PU Leather

Given its durability and ease of maintenance, it's no surprise that PU leather has found its way into various industries. One of the most prominent uses of PU leather is in the furniture industry. Sofas, chairs, and other seating options often feature PU leather due to its resilience and affordability compared to genuine leather.

In the automotive industry, PU leather is commonly used for interior finishes. Car seats and dashboard covers made from this material provide an elegant look that mimics the aesthetic of real leather, without the associated cost or maintenance requirements. 

In sum, the popularity of PU leather can be attributed to its durability, ease of cleaning, and versatility. These characteristics have led to its widespread use in various industries, from furniture to automotive interiors, and handbags. As we continue to explore the world of synthetic vegan leathers, it's clear that materials like PU leather are reshaping the landscape of design and manufacturing in exciting and innovative ways.

Exploring Silicone Leather: The New Face of Synthetic Vegan Leather

Sample of brown Silicone leather
Rahui London

As our journey into the world of synthetic vegan leather continues, we now turn our attention to a more recent innovation in this field - silicone leather. Unlike other types of synthetic leather, silicone leather isn't derived from thermoplastic polymers such as polyurethane or PVC. Instead, it is a product of silicon, a natural element abundantly found in sand and quartz. This unique origin gives silicone leather some distinct features that set it apart from its counterparts.

Silicone leather is a result of technological advancements in the field of materials science, where researchers have found ingenious ways to leverage the unique properties of silicon. Silicone, in its rubber form, is used to create a material that not only mimics the texture and flexibility of traditional leather but also possesses a host of other desirable attributes. A study conducted by Shin-Etsu Silicone revealed that silicone leather can endure up to 5,000 abrasion tests with sandpaper without any damage to its surface, demonstrating its remarkable durability.

The Advantages of Silicone Over Other Synthetic Vegan Leathers

Aside from its impressive toughness, silicone leather has several other advantages over traditional synthetic vegan leathers like PU and PVC. One of these is its superior UV resistance. While other synthetic vegan leathers may fade or crack under prolonged exposure to sunlight, silicone leather is able to maintain its color and structural integrity even in harsh UV radiation conditions. This feature makes it particularly suitable for outdoor applications, where it can outlast other materials.

Structural consistency is another strength of silicone leather. Because it's derived from a single element, silicon, it has a more uniform molecular structure than synthetic vegan leathers based on complex compounds. This consistency translates into a more predictable behavior under various physical stresses, helping it maintain its shape over time.

One of the most noticeable advantages of silicone leather is its absence of odors. Unlike PU and PVC, which can release an unpleasant smell especially when new, silicone leather is virtually odor-free. This makes it an ideal choice for applications where the presence of strong chemical odors is undesirable, such as in car interiors or clothing items.

In addition to these remarkable properties, silicone leather is also water-resistant and easy to clean, similar to other types of faux leather. However, unlike traditional synthetic vegan leathers, it can achieve these features without the need for harmful chemical coatings, making it a safer and more eco-friendly option.

Silicone leather represents a significant leap forward in the evolution of synthetic vegan leather. It offers all the benefits of traditional synthetic vegan leathers, while overcoming many of their limitations. As the new face of synthetic vegan leather, it's poised to make a big impact on various industries, from fashion and automotive to interior design and beyond.

How Sustainable is Synthetic Vegan Leather?

Environmental Impact and Sustainability

Having explored the fascinating world of synthetic vegan leather, and particularly the promising innovation of silicone leather, it's essential to consider the environmental implications. After all, as we stride towards a future where sustainability is paramount, our choices in materials must reflect this ethos.

When examining synthetic vegan leather production, the environmental footprint might seem concerning at first glance. Plastic-based leathers, such as PU or PVC, are notorious for their tendency to degrade like other plastics. As outlined by NoMomente, it can take these materials up to 500 years to decompose. During this lengthy process, they break down into microplastics and can release toxic chemicals. Moreover, synthetic plastic-based fibres and leather can also shed microplastics during use, not just after they are discarded.

PETA highlights that leather production heavily contributes to eutrophication, a serious ecological problem. For those unfamiliar with the term, eutrophication refers to an overgrowth of plant life in water systems due to runoff waste, which subsequently suffocates aquatic animals by depleting oxygen levels. This issue is the leading cause of hypoxic zones, or 'dead zones' in water bodies.

The Green Promise of Silicone Faux Leather

With these environmental concerns in mind, the advent of silicone leather presents a beacon of hope. As we've learned in previous sections, silicone leather is derived from silicon—a naturally abundant element—and its manufacturing process is considerably cleaner. It doesn't contain plasticisers, phthalates, or other harmful toxins often found in other synthetic vegan leathers. Consequently, it's less likely to release toxic chemicals during its lifespan and eventual decomposition.

Moreover, silicone leather's strong resistance to UV rays and structural consistency mean that it maintains its shape and functionality for longer. By extending the lifespan of products made from it, we can reduce the overall demand for replacements, thus curtailing the need for additional resource extraction and production.

At Rahui London we are strong proponents of Plant-Based Leathers as we believe the offer superior sustainability credentials while being eco and ethical. However of the synthetic vegan leathers silicone faux leather represents a significant step towards a more sustainable future. It's an innovation that not only delivers on quality and performance but also respects and minimises harm to our environment.

The Future of Synthetic Vegan Leather

A growing and changing market

As we delve into the future, we must acknowledge the rapid growth and evolution that synthetic vegan leather has seen. As of 2022, the global Synthetic Vegan Leather (Artificial Leather) market is valued at approximately USD $71.4 billion, and it's projected to reach USD $101 billion in 2028 (LinkedIn). This growth is not by chance; it is driven by a rising environmental awareness, increasing animal welfare concerns, and the growing demand for animal-friendly alternatives to genuine leather products.

The future of synthetic vegan leather is not only about growth in market value but also about continuous innovation for improved sustainability and quality. In particular, the industry is making strides towards more eco-friendly manufacturing processes. Innovations such as VESTANAT®, developed by Evonik Industries, are paving the way for more sustainable methods to produce artificial leather. This product replaces traditional solvent-intensive production methods, aligning with the industry's commitment towards practical sustainability.

The industry is moving towards leveraging technology to create synthetic vegan leather that is not just durable and aesthetically pleasing, but also more environmentally friendly. New technologies are being developed to replace harmful solvents traditionally used in the production process, such as dimethylformamide (DMF). This marks a significant shift towards more sustainable and efficient manufacturing processes, showing the industry's commitment to environmental protection.

However, the journey towards a sustainable future for synthetic vegan leather does not end here. As the industry continues to grow, there will be more opportunities and challenges that will push it towards more innovation and improvement. With consumer demand for sustainability on the rise, it is crucial for the industry to continue developing and implementing sustainable practices.

As we look to the horizon, it becomes clear that the future of synthetic vegan leather is bright, promising, and sustainable. The innovations we've discussed throughout this blog—from PU leather to silicone leather—are just the tip of the iceberg. There's no telling what exciting new developments await us in this ever-evolving field.

What Does This Mean For Consumers?

Progress doesn't happen in a vacuum—it happens when individuals and industries work together towards a common goal. So let's all do our part in supporting sustainable innovations in the synthetic vegan leather industry. Whether you're a consumer who chooses eco-friendly products, a designer who incorporates sustainable materials into their creations, or a manufacturer who implements green practices, every effort counts.

Together, we can help shape a future where synthetic vegan leather is not just an alternative to real leather but a better, more sustainable choice for everyone. So let's continue exploring, innovating, and supporting sustainable practices in the synthetic vegan leather industry. Because after all, the future is ours to create.

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