The Truth About Artificial Leather: How It Affects Your Health and the Environment

Updated on April 26, 2024



Artificial leather, also known as faux leather or synthetic leather, is a man-made material that imitates the look and feel of genuine leather. It has gained popularity in various industries, including fashion and furniture, due to its affordability, versatility, and animal-friendly nature.

The history of artificial leather dates back to the early 20th century when it was first developed as an alternative to genuine leather. Initially, it was made from materials such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and PU (polyurethane), which were cheaper and more readily available than animal hides. Over the years, advancements in technology have led to the development of more sustainable and eco-friendly materials for artificial leather production.

In recent years, artificial leather has become increasingly popular in the fashion industry. Many high-end fashion brands are now incorporating faux leather into their collections as a more ethical and sustainable alternative to genuine leather. Additionally, artificial leather is widely used in the furniture industry for upholstery and other applications due to its durability and ease of maintenance.

The Composition of Artificial Leather and Its Environmental Impact


Artificial leather is typically made from a combination of materials such as PVC or PU, fabric backing, and various additives. PVC-based artificial leather is known for its durability and resistance to wear and tear, while PU-based artificial leather offers a softer and more flexible texture.

However, the production of artificial leather has significant environmental implications. The main concern lies in the use of petroleum-based materials such as PVC and PU. The extraction and processing of petroleum contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution. Additionally, these materials are not biodegradable and can take hundreds of years to break down in landfills.

In comparison, genuine leather production also has its environmental impact. The livestock industry is a major contributor to deforestation, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, the tanning process used to treat animal hides involves the use of toxic chemicals, which can be harmful to both human health and the environment.

The Manufacturing Process of Artificial Leather and Its Effects on the Environment


The manufacturing process of artificial leather involves several stages, including coating, embossing, and finishing. These processes require a significant amount of energy and resources, leading to greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts.

Energy consumption is a major concern in artificial leather production. The production of PVC and PU requires high temperatures and energy-intensive processes. This results in the release of greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change. Additionally, the extraction and processing of petroleum for these materials further deplete natural resources.

Water usage is another significant issue in artificial leather production. The coating and finishing processes require large amounts of water for cleaning and treatment. This water often contains harmful chemicals and pollutants, which can contaminate local water sources if not properly treated.

The Use of Chemicals in Artificial Leather and Their Health Risks


The production of artificial leather involves the use of various chemicals, including plasticizers, stabilizers, and colorants. These chemicals can pose health risks to both workers in the manufacturing process and consumers who come into contact with the finished products.

Plasticizers are commonly used in artificial leather production to make the material more flexible and soft. However, some plasticizers, such as phthalates, have been linked to adverse health effects such as hormonal disruptions and reproductive issues. In recent years, there has been a push for the use of alternative plasticizers that are less harmful to human health.

Stabilizers are used to prevent degradation of the artificial leather material over time. Some stabilizers contain heavy metals such as lead or cadmium, which can be toxic if ingested or inhaled. Strict regulations are in place to limit the use of these heavy metals in consumer products.

Colorants are used to give artificial leather its desired appearance. However, some colorants contain harmful substances such as azo dyes, which can release carcinogenic compounds when they come into contact with sweat or saliva. Regulations and safety measures are in place to ensure that artificial leather products meet strict standards for chemical content.

The Disposal of Artificial Leather and Its Contribution to Landfills


One of the challenges with artificial leather is its difficulty in recycling. Due to its composition of various materials, including PVC and PU, it is not easily recyclable. This means that a significant amount of artificial leather ends up in landfills, contributing to the growing problem of waste disposal.

Artificial leather is not biodegradable and can take hundreds of years to break down in landfills. As it decomposes, it releases harmful chemicals and pollutants into the environment, further contributing to pollution and environmental degradation.

To address this issue, efforts are being made to develop more sustainable alternatives to artificial leather that are biodegradable and recyclable. These alternatives aim to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion and furniture industries while still providing the desired look and feel of genuine leather.

The Comparison between Artificial Leather and Genuine Leather


When comparing artificial leather to genuine leather, there are several factors to consider, including quality, durability, and environmental impact.

In terms of quality, genuine leather is often considered superior due to its natural texture and appearance. It has a unique grain pattern that cannot be replicated by artificial leather. Genuine leather also tends to age well and develop a patina over time, giving it a timeless appeal.

However, genuine leather production has significant environmental implications. The livestock industry is a major contributor to deforestation, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, the tanning process used to treat animal hides involves the use of toxic chemicals, which can be harmful to both human health and the environment.

Artificial leather offers a more sustainable alternative to genuine leather in terms of environmental impact. It does not require the use of animal hides and reduces the demand for livestock farming. However, the production of artificial leather still has its own environmental challenges, as discussed earlier.

The Durability and Longevity of Artificial Leather


The durability and longevity of artificial leather depend on various factors, including the quality of the material and how well it is maintained.

High-quality artificial leather can be quite durable and resistant to wear and tear. It is often treated with protective coatings to enhance its durability and make it more resistant to stains and spills. However, lower-quality artificial leather may be prone to cracking, peeling, or fading over time.

Proper maintenance and care can significantly extend the lifespan of artificial leather. Regular cleaning and conditioning can help prevent dirt buildup and keep the material looking its best. It is important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning and care to avoid damaging the material.

When compared to genuine leather, artificial leather may not have the same level of durability and longevity. Genuine leather tends to be more resistant to scratches and tears, and it can develop a patina over time that adds to its character. However, with proper care, artificial leather can still last for many years.

The Cost of Artificial Leather and Its Affordability


Artificial leather is generally more affordable than genuine leather, making it a popular choice for consumers who are looking for a budget-friendly option. The lower cost of production materials, such as PVC or PU, contributes to the lower price point of artificial leather products.

In comparison, genuine leather tends to be more expensive due to the higher cost of raw materials and the labor-intensive nature of its production process. The quality and type of genuine leather also play a role in determining its price. For example, full-grain leather, which is considered the highest quality, is typically more expensive than bonded or corrected-grain leather.

The affordability of artificial leather makes it accessible to a wider range of consumers. It allows individuals to enjoy the look and feel of leather without the high price tag. However, it is important to consider the environmental and ethical implications of choosing artificial leather over genuine leather.

The Alternative Materials to Artificial Leather


As the demand for sustainable and eco-friendly materials grows, alternative materials to artificial leather are being developed and used in various industries.

One such material is cork leather, which is made from the bark of cork oak trees. Cork leather is lightweight, water-resistant, and durable, making it a suitable alternative for fashion accessories and upholstery. It is also biodegradable and renewable, making it a more sustainable choice compared to artificial leather.

Another alternative material is Piñatex, which is made from pineapple leaf fibers. Piñatex has a similar texture and appearance to genuine leather and can be used in various applications, including fashion accessories and furniture upholstery. It is a byproduct of the pineapple industry, making it a sustainable and eco-friendly choice.

Other alternative materials include mushroom leather, apple leather, and recycled polyester. Each material has its own unique properties and benefits, but they all share a common goal of reducing the environmental impact of the fashion and furniture industries.

The Role of Consumers in Reducing the Environmental Impact of Artificial Leather


Consumers play a crucial role in reducing the environmental impact of artificial leather by making informed choices and adopting sustainable practices.

Consumer awareness is key in driving change. By educating themselves about the environmental implications of different materials, consumers can make more conscious decisions when purchasing products. This includes considering the source of materials, production processes, and disposal methods.

Choosing sustainable and eco-friendly options is another way consumers can reduce the environmental impact of artificial leather. This can involve opting for products made from alternative materials or supporting brands that prioritize sustainability in their production practices.

Proper disposal and recycling practices are also important. While artificial leather may not be easily recyclable, consumers can explore alternative options such as donating or repurposing old products. By extending the lifespan of artificial leather items, consumers can reduce the demand for new products and minimize waste.

The Pros and Cons of Artificial Leather and Its Impact on Health and the Environment


In conclusion, artificial leather offers a more affordable and animal-friendly alternative to genuine leather. It has gained popularity in various industries, including fashion and furniture, due to its versatility and durability. However, the production and disposal of artificial leather have significant environmental implications.

The use of petroleum-based materials in artificial leather production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution. The manufacturing process requires a significant amount of energy and water, further depleting natural resources. Additionally, the use of chemicals in artificial leather production poses health risks to both workers and consumers.

While artificial leather may not be easily recyclable, efforts are being made to develop more sustainable alternatives that are biodegradable and recyclable. Consumer awareness and choices play a crucial role in reducing the environmental impact of artificial leather. By choosing sustainable options, properly maintaining products, and adopting responsible disposal practices, consumers can contribute to a more sustainable future.

It is important for both consumers and manufacturers to prioritize sustainability and environmental impact in the production and use of artificial leather. By working together, we can create a more ethical and eco-friendly industry that meets the needs of consumers while minimizing harm to the planet.

The Editorial Team at Healthcare Business Today is made up of skilled healthcare writers and experts, led by our managing editor, Daniel Casciato, who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We offer readers access to fresh health, medicine, science, and technology developments and the latest in patient news, emphasizing how these developments affect our lives.