What Is Vegan Leather, Anyway?

InStyle investigates the best alternatives.

A woman wears a green bag designed by Mansur Gavriel, a brand that makes vegan leather bags.

Getty Images

Animal leather is a controversial material for many reasons, from animal cruelty to the environmental impact. And the rise of alternative leathers means that there are now many ways to avoid it. But the truth about vegan leather can be jarring, especially for a customer hoping to shop ethically. As it turns out, not all vegan leathers are created equally.

Not only is there a difference between vegan leather options, but, depending on the materials, your well intentioned choices might not be much better for the environment compared to genuine leather at all. Ahead, InStyle breaks down the different types of vegan leather alternatives, from apple leather to polyurethane leather to recycled leather, so you can make the most informed choice for your conscience and the planet.

Apple Leather

Mansur Gavriel Vegan Apple Leather Bucket Bag

Mansur Gavriel

Shop now: Mansur Gavriel Vegan Apple Leather Bucket Bag, $495.

A designer fave, apple leather is known for its luxe feel and eco-friendly origins. High-end brands like Mansur Gavriel have begun offering their most iconic designs in this carbon-neutral material. Apple leather is made from recycled apple skins discarded when jams, juice, and other foods are produced. "The apple is a beautiful, pure fruit from nature, and we love that we are able to upcycle the wastage into a luxurious yet sustainable leather good," share Mansur Gavriel cofounders, Floriana Gavriel and Rachel Mansur.

Turning plant waste into high-end bags is a win for the environment, but it's worth noting that apples alone don't become durable, beautiful purses without a few other ingredients. "The apple leather used in our products is made using 50% apple waste mixed with 50% PU [polyurethane], coated onto a cotton/polyester canvas," explains Oliver Company, a brand that makes sustainable accessories, on its website.

Cactus Leather

Everlane's The Cactus Leather Hobo Bag, a bag made from vegan leather.

Shop now: Everlane The Cactus Leather Hobo, $150.

Another plant-based alternative, cactus leather is also known for its quality, even being used by Mercedes-Benz as a replacement for its genuine leather interiors. There's only one company that makes cactus leather, so there's no guesswork when it comes to quality. Whether you're buying a bag from Everlane or Fossil, the raw material comes from Desserto; Desserto cactus leather is the most sustainable type of leather on our list for a number of reasons, including the sustainable nature of the plants used to produce it to the lack of additional chemicals needed to prepare it for use.

Mushroom Leather

Frayme Mylo™️ Shoulder Bag, a vegan leather bag made from mushroom leather.

Stella McCartney

Shop now: Stella McCartney Frayme Mylo™️ Shoulder Bag, $2,650.

Mushroom leather rounds out our list of plant-based vegan leathers. Mushroom leather is one of the oldest plant-based leather alternatives, and its texture is one of the closest to genuine leather out there. Like cactus leather, mushroom leather is produced and then purchased by designers, and Mylo Unleather is widely considered the best mushroom leather producer in the game. Mylo Unleather is used by brands like Lululemon and Stella McCartney to produce durable, eco-friendly, sustainable vegan leather goods.

PU Leather

Polyurethane, or PU vegan leather is the most affordable type of vegan leather available, but also the least sturdy. Since PU leather is made of an artificial plastic, it won't decompose. It's also inexpensive to produce and can wear out quickly.

Once PU leather enters the trash system, it can become an environmental hazard. As Harpers Bazaar UK points out, "clothing made from plastic can pose a threat during and after its lifespan because it could end up in water or landfill." One expert estimates that over 28 billion pounds of synthetic fibers — of all types — enter our oceans each year, so while they're cheap and don't harm animals to create, plastic vegan leathers still pose risks.

Recycled Leather

Brandon Blackwood ESR tote made from recycled leather, a leather alternative.

Brandon Blackwood

Shop now: Brandon Blackwood ESR Tote in Brown Recycled Leather, $88.

Some brands offer a fourth option: recycled leather. While recycled leather does include a blend of vegan and animal leather, its eco-friendly attributes might surprise you. Brandon Blackwood's recycled leather is made from scraps left behind from the construction of its other bags. These scraps are "mixed with a binder to form a single fabric, which is then rolled and bonded to a paper backing. It has the look and feel of genuine leather while being made entirely of discarded materials," shares the brand.

Why opt for recycled leather? For starters, this kind of reuse means that brands can design bags without creating any leather waste. Given that approximately 800,000 tonnes of leather waste are produced every year — that's over a billion pounds of waste going into landfills — a waste-free bag that looks and feels like leather is definitely a solid eco-friendly alternative.

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