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From Marlon Brando's iconic biker jacket in 1953's "The Wild One" to Jeff Goldblum's array of black leather paired with wild button-ups in 2019, leather staying in style is as sure as death, taxes and cockroaches. Just as certain, though, is our responsibility to reverse the climate change trends continuously threatening the planet we call home.

On that very planet, the leather tanning industry puts out up to 80 cubic meters of chromium, formaldehyde, coal tar and pesticide-tainted wastewater for every ton of product it produces, while 70 percent of untreated hide goes straight to the trash per 2014 reports from Gizmodo. Whether you're vegan or not, those are the straight facts that make the vegan leather look worth investigating. Luckily, it's a look as timeless as it is timely.

Factors of Faux

As it turns out, there is no one monolithic thing that is "vegan leather." Basically, vegan leather is any kind of leather substitute that is not made from the skin of dead animals. Most commonly, it's made from the polymer polyurethane – which is why you'll often see it referred to as "PU" – but it may also contain:

  • Apple peels
  • Barkcloth
  • Cork
  • Fruit waste
  • Glazed cotton
  • Kelp
  • Paper
  • Pineapple leaves
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
  • Recycled plastic
  • Waxed cotton

For the most part, vegan leather is what we used to call faux leather or in the case of PU or PVC leather, "pleather." In some cases, though, that faux leather has benefited from some eco-friendly updates.

The Environmental Question(s)

While your run-of-the-mill PU and PVC pleathers don't contain animal skins, they are synthetic, plastic-based materials. As you might imagine, that raises some environmental and ethical questions of its own, as PVC releases potentially toxic dioxins when burnt. PU has a slightly better reputation, but it requires toxic solvents, can also release toxins during manufacturing and contains oil-based polymers made with fossil fuels.

So, what can you do if you want to make sure your faux-lambskin leather is as earth friendly as an actual lamb? For the most part, it boils down to checking each vegan leather manufacturer's materials and production process. Steer clear of plastics and other synthetics if you can, instead opting for products based on sustainable, cruelty-free, organic materials, from kelp to cork to cotton.

If you do go with synthetics, PU with a waterborne or vegetable oil coating is less damaging to the environment than those made with petroleum. Organic faux leather's ability to decompose in much the same way as real leather also gives it an environmental advantage over the synthetic stuff. PU and PVC don't decay, and outside of a complete molecular breakdown, they can only be recycled via repurposing.

Know Your Vegan Leather Looks

From a full-on, skin-free leather daddy getup to accessorizing your regular wardrobe with some vegan leather ankle boots and a cork-made wallet, styling vegan leather works pretty much like styling regular leather.

Make sure your outfit's faux-leather accessories complement each other colorwise (no mixing blacks and browns), stick to monochrome leather rather than gaudy prints and treat a leather jacket as the centerpiece of your outfit, keeping the surrounding trappings classic, fitted and minimal. Oh, and probably don't wear leather pants unless you're walking a runway or fronting a band.

While they share more styling similarities than differences, vegan leather and traditional leather do have just a couple of key differences. For one, vegan leather doesn't age or patina the same way animal skin does. Don't try to distress those faux-leather cowboy boots, or you'll end up with a mess. Synthetic leathers also don't breathe as much as leather made from organic material, so stick with lighter layers when you roll vegan.

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About the Author

Dan Ketchum

Dan combines his decade-long experience as a freelance writer and small business owner with hands-on experience in fashion, mixology, media production and more. Previously, he's published with Chron.com, Charlotte's Book, LIVESTRONG, Civilized Life, Hunker, Fortune, Salon.com, Out East Rose, Samsung, USA Today and others.