Real leather is made from the skin, or hide, of a number of animals including cows from the meat and dairy industries. How an animal is housed and treated during its lifetime has an effect on the quality of the material that is produced. A good skin can produce an 80-90% yield, this is reduced to 60% if the animal has been branded with a hot iron, exposed to barbed wire or insect bites, or been subjected to electric cattle prods, all of which cause blemishes to be left on the skin. Once the skin has been removed from the cow the flesh needs to be taken off by hand or a fleshing machine. The leather goes through a number of other processes including cleaning, tanning, retanning, milling and finishing, all of which use resources such as water and chemicals and have a negative impact on the environment.

Synthetic leather is called different names depending on its use. For example ‘faux leather’ often relates to furnishings such as sofas and headboards, whereas ‘leatherette’ or even ‘pleather’ has been used within the automotive upholstery and fashion industries. These alternatives to real leather tend to be cheaper, can often withstand scratches, and do not crack or peel as leather can. They can be lower in maintenance being wipe clean, and can be printed and dyed for different effects. However, unlike leather, plastics alternatives do not stretch and are not puncture resistant.

People who wish to avoid the use of leather have a number of choices in alternative materials. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) also referred to as vinyl (1-2) has a number of layers under the PVC coating, making it tough and durable. Polyurethane (PU) (3) is more breathable than PVC and has fewer layers making it more flexible to work with. It can also wrinkle and stain like natural leather.


To reduce the use of fossil-fuels, alternative feedstocks have been used to create materials that have the look and feel of real leather. Apple leather (4) uses leftover peel and pulp from juice and compote production combined with polyurethane (PU) and coated onto a polyester and cotton backing. Pinatex (5) is made from the waste leaves of the pineapple plant mixed with polylactic acid (PLA) and polyurethane (PU).