In the realm of fashion and upholstery, PU leather has risen to prominence as a versatile alternative to other types of leather, such as cowhide, deerskin or goatskin. The allure of this synthetic material lies in its capacity to mimic the luxurious look and feel of authentic leather while offering a more budget-friendly option. And while many people believe that it is more sustainable and eco-conscious than real leather, is this really true?
Here we look at PU leather in more detail, exploring its composition, durability, and how it compares to real leather, giving you everything you need to answer the question for yourself.
What is PU leather?
PU leather, short for polyurethane leather, is a synthetic material designed to imitate the look and feel of real leather. Unlike natural leather, which is made from animal hides, PU leather is manufactured. It is used for many of the same products as real leather such as furniture, shoes, bags, and wallets.
What is PU leather made of?
PU leather is primarily composed of two layers. The base layer is typically made from polyester or a similar fabric, which provides the material with strength and stability. On top of this fabric layer, a polyurethane coating is applied. This polyurethane layer gives PU leather its characteristic smooth and shiny surface, and it can be designed to mimic various textures, from the pebbled grain of full-grain leather to the smooth finish of patent leather. Some variations of PU leather may also have additional layers or chemical treatments to enhance durability and appearance.
Is PU leather as good as real leather?
The quality of PU leather is a subject of debate and largely depends on personal preferences and intended use. PU leather is generally cheaper than real leather and it's also available in a wide range of colours and textures, offering versatility in design. It is relatively easy to clean and maintain which is why it is so popular for heavy-use items of furniture such as couches. However, many types of PU leather are instantly detectable as synthetic which can dampen the aesthetic appeal of a product and the material can also emit an unpleasant chemical odour.
In contrast, real leather might be more expensive, but it has many unique qualities that are highly desired. For example, real leather develops a natural patina over time and has an instantly recognisable scent. Real leather can take more effort to look after properly, however, it also has breathability and timelessness that synthetic materials like PU leather lack.
Is PU leather durable?
When it comes to the most durable leather, PU leather is better in comparison to some other synthetic materials as it is resistant to wear and tear. However, PU is susceptible to cracking, fading, and peeling. PU leather can last for a few months to several years depending on the quality of the material, intensity of use and how well it is maintained.
Quality and usage obviously do impact the lifespan of real leather but when compared to PU leather, real leather is arguably more durable. Leather can last for 100 years before it even begins to disintegrate and with proper care and storage, products such as bags and shoes can last for 30 years or more.
Is PU leather sustainable?
PU leather is often considered a more sustainable option compared to genuine leather and is commonly referred to as vegan leather or eco-leather. However, its sustainability is not without its caveats.
PU leather is touted as a greener alternative to real leather as it doesn't involve the use of animal hides and can be made from recycled materials. However, this does depend on the hides you are comparing it to. Our leather is produced from animal skins that would have otherwise gone to landfill and are a by-product of the meat industry and necessary deer culling.
Both types of leather must undergo processing and environmental concerns have been raised about the use of chemicals and the emissions of these processes. PU leather is made from petroleum-derived plastic and some variants require the use of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), heavy metals and solvents during their manufacture. These are known to cause a range of health problems and have a negative impact on the environment.
While some real leather tanning can be energy-intensive and require the use of chemicals such as chromium, we do things differently at Billy Tannery. Our hides undergo vegetable tanning, we recycle 90% of the water we use during the process and turn our waste into compost.
Then there’s the disposal of PU leather compared to real leather. As PU leather is a synthetic material, it doesn’t biodegrade so can pose environmental challenges. As a natural product, however, real leather will break down once in a landfill.
If you were on the fence about whether to opt for PU leather or real leather, we hope we’ve helped you make up your mind. If you’d like to learn more about the leather we use, check out our deer vs goat leather and suede leather guides. You can also check out our range of goat leather products which are made in the UK, with quality, sustainability and longevity as their guiding principles.