I was recently on the hunt for a second-hand leather jacket, when I came across a seller offering one at what I thought was a throwaway price. Curious as to why it was priced so low, I asked her if it was genuine leather and she emphatically said yes. Upon closer inspection, I found the small inner tag that clearly said "PU".
I don't know if she was trying to trick me or if she sincerely didn't know the difference. Faux leather is known by many names such as imitation, PU (polyurethane), "pleather", leatherette or vegan leather. It is made from a thermoplastic polymer and, in recent years, has started to look closer and closer to the real thing. Still, you can often tell them apart by the impossibly smooth finish of PU (think of those Instagram filters that make your pores disappear) and from it's distinct plastic-y smell.
So why do people buy faux leather over genuine? For a few reasons:
- It's cheaper. PU leather takes less time and resources to manufacture, which means brands can churn out more pieces and customers can get them at a significantly lower price than genuine leather goods.
Fancy finishes. Ever seen a bag or shoe made from glossy patent, shimmery metallic, or perhaps embossed snakeskin leather? 9 times out of 10, it is synthetic leather (or PU coating) that makes that futuristic finish possible.
Vegan-friendly. If you're not comfortable wearing something made from animal products, PU products are the obvious choice (but be sure to check that they're not a blend which still uses animal leather).
The pros of faux seem pretty compelling to the average buyer, and yet people still dish out money for genuine leather products. How come? Well, PU still has a few significant cons compared to genuine leather. The disadvantages of buying PU include:
Short shelf life. Genuine leather can outlast PU leather, often by DECADES. I still have leather ankle boots passed down from my mom that are nearly 30 years old. When polished, they look as if they were newly bought. Leather's durability means that, sure, the original price is high. But when you care for it adequately, you won't need to buy a replacement for a long time.
Less comfortable. Since genuine leather is made from organic material, it tends to be more flexible, soft and breathable than PU. As a plastic, PU has the advantage of being less vulnerable to water, but the downside is a more rigid, sweat-trapping fabric that can become sticky or, in extreme cases, even melt in the heat.
Pollutant. Although it may be less cruel than wearing animal hide, sadly PU is still a plastic that peels, crumbles and falls apart easily; those pieces then end up polluting the ground and water, sometimes ending up in the bellies of marine animals and birds.
Now that you have the pros and cons of faux leather, you can decide whether or not it's worth the purchase. I personally prefer genuine leather's durability and feel, though I'm still a sucker for holographic fabric. If you have a preference, share your reasons in the comments below.