The faux leather industry has experienced “advancements” and “production improvements” over the years. It has even experienced a virtual identity overhaul with the viral catchphrase “vegan leather” making the rounds. But, really? We think all that actually means is it’s getting tougher for folks to know what they’re getting.
We don’t have time for that. You probably don’t either. If you’re trying to find a quick answer, we’ll cut to the chase. The main difference between the two is real leather is made from animal hides, such as buffalo or cattle. Faux leather is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane and is not natural. Now that you know the main difference, here’s the rundown on real leather vs. faux leather in some other important areas, including how to spot a fake, and some insight into how environmentally conscious that “vegan” leather really is.
Look at the surface of the leather. Real leather is a natural material made from real animal skin. Its surface structure will not be completely uniform and will include blemishes and imperfections. (Hints of imperfections are a good sign in leather.) When you run your fingers across real leather, it doesn’t feel perfectly smooth. Press your finger into the leather - the surface will stretch and wrinkle a bit, like skin. Finally, smell it. If you’ve smelled real leather before, you know it has a distinctive “leathery” smell - it has a natural, organic, skin scent that cannot be accurately manufactured.
The surface of synthetic leather is uniform. A very regular, even texture pattern is a sign that it’s a machine-made piece. When you run your fingers across faux leather, it feels cold and unnaturally even. Also, when you press your finger into the surface, it doesn’t act like skin. Rather than stretching or wrinkling, the synthetic material simply depresses under your finger while still retaining its shape. Now, smell it. There is no reliable way to fake the smell of real leather. Faux leather smells like plastic. If you smell a plasticky, chemical odor, you can bet it’s synthetic.
Real leather far outlasts its counterparts in long term endurance, and more than that, the more you use it, the better it looks. Given the proper care, the same wear and tear that would wear out and tear up another product will instead develop in real leather the character and patina that make it even more valuable and desirable over time. Learn how to take care of real leather with our guide,How to Care for Leather.
Simply put, faux leather is not made to last. It does not last nearly as long as real leather, and unfortunately, when it begins to wear out, it does not wear out attractively. Unlike real leather, faux leather can not be restored or conditioned to its original state.
When sourced from sustainable ranches and tanned naturally, real leather actually has the potential to be less damaging to the environment than most faux (or “vegan”) leathers (excluding the rare vegan leather options made from cotton or cork). It is also worth noting that most hides used in leather production come from cattle that were raised for beef and milk—so the cows didn’t actually die just to become coats and purses (and not using their hides could actually be considered wasteful).
Most faux leather is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane. If the only environmental impact you’re considering is whether an animal skin is used in the leather, then it’s clearly true that faux leather has a smaller impact than real leather. However, the sorts of chemistry used in the manufacturing process have a negative environmental impact, which affects everyone alive on the earth - including animals. Faux leather products also wear out and need to be replaced much more often than real leather, which just compounds the impact. Real leather products can last for decades where faux leather may only last for a few years at most.