What Are Leather Alternatives?

For thousands of years, one of the most enduring and consistent materials for clothing has been leather. The process to produce it is fairly simple, and the materials are natural byproducts of killing animals for food. As technology has advanced, leather has remained a popular material for shoes and accessories.

The reasons for leather’s continuing popularity are pretty obvious. Leather is attractive. It can be embossed with different textures, and it takes well to different dye colors as well as multiple finishes. Properly treated leather is fairly water-resistant and is extremely durable in a variety of environments.

Leather’s long-running popularity does not negate several problems with leather production. Leather is produced from animal hides. In order to produce the amount of leather needed for the fashion industry, millions of cows are needed. 

With many people choosing veganism for its lower environmental impact and the ethical concerns of killing animals to eat, leather runs the risk of becoming a source of damage, rather than a sideline to use waste products from the meat industry. This leaves many folks looking for alternatives to leather. Let’s list some of these alternatives, along with the pros and cons of each alternative.


One of the traditional substitutes for leather is vinyl. There are many positive elements to vinyl. By combining a polyvinyl chloride top layer with a synthetic underlayer, Synthetic leather, AKA “pleather”, can mimic the look and feel of leather. These synthetics have an embossed finish that looks like the grain of natural leather.

In addition to looking like natural leather, pleather mimics many of the versatile functions of true leather. Vinyl is obviously waterproof and maintains the easy cleanability of leather materials. Spills can wipe off without staining, in the same way, that fully cured and sealed leather is cleanable. 

Vinyl is not a perfect replacement for leather, however. AS leather gets worn, it can be refreshed with leather conditioners. These will often refresh the finish, and will definitely stop the finish from degrading any further. 

Vinyl is not as resilient as leather. While your natural leather product will age into a nice patina over time, vinyl leather substitutes will never look better than the day they are purchased. Wear on the vinyl eventually takes the finish off. Once this happens, it is clear that the item is synthetic. The underlayers look nothing like real leather, and once they are exposed, the illusion is over. As you can imagine, vinyl also does not respond well to heat, and can literally melt if exposed to too much direct heat.

Another major issue with vinyl is the environmental impact of it. Vinyl synthetic leather is made of PVC, the same plastic used in children’s toys and plumbing fixtures. PVC is made from petroleum distillates, via a process with many chemical byproducts. 

If you are looking for a leather substitute solely because you feel it is unethical to kill an animal for clothing, Vinyl will meet your needs, but if your issues with natural leather extend to the environmental impact, using a product made from petroleum, with all of the environmental hazards that go with it is probably not your ideal option.

Natural Substitutes

Modern materials scientists are working on some natural substitutes for leather that do not require petroleum distillates. There is some promise in materials made from bamboo, but the one that is closest to the market involves mycelium leather. Put simply, mycelium is the root network of fungi like mushrooms. These fibers criss-cross and provide a great deal of strength.

Mycelium leather has clear advantages over vinyl. Once embossed and finished, Mycelium leather will age much more like natural leather. Properly cared for, mycelium leather will just look better with age, rather than breaking down like vinyl.

MYcelium leather is not completely heatproof. It will burn, just like any natural material, but it will not melt like vinyl. This means that normal work and wear will not make your mycelium leather-look “fake”.

Since the main reason many people want to make a change to a leather substitute is the environment, it is also important to note that mycelium leather has a much lower environmental impact than either vinyl or natural animal leather. 

In summary, mycelium leather is a substitute for leather that meets all the needs for a leather substitute, without many of the shortcomings of traditional leather substitutes.