Leather is a timeless, versatile, and long-lasting material used for furniture and several other everyday items. But various types of leather have very different qualities. So, we take a look at the similarities and differences between faux and synthetic leather.
Faux leather and synthetic leather are two terms used interchangeably in the furniture industry. They don’t use animal hide or tanning processes to create leather but use artificial materials like Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC-Vinyl) and Polyurethane (PU) compounds which undergo chemical treatments.
Due to the differences in the manufacturing processes between faux or synthetic leather and genuine leather, the final products, although they can look the same, are very different. And it will help you to understand exactly what the processes are and how the final products differ.
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What Is Faux or Synthetic Leather?
Faux leather, which is also commonly referred to as synthetic or artificial leather, is used as a substitute for genuine leather in the manufacturing of sofas, clothes, upholstery, and chair covers, to name just a few of the various items it is used for.
The artificial materials used in faux or synthetic leather are treated with chemicals to create a product that resembles genuine leather’s texture, color, and feel.
In simpler terms, the fundamental difference between faux or synthetic leather and genuine leather is that, while genuine leather is made from animal hides, such as snakes, crocodiles, cows, buffalos, or oxen, faux leather is made from a plastic base, treated with waxes, dyes, and polyurethane to create colors and textures that resemble genuine leather.
Faux or synthetic leather has a similar surface to genuine leather and looks like it too. It is dyed and treated to resemble the texture of genuine leather without killing any animals in the process.
What Is Genuine Leather?
Genuine leather is made out of animal skins or hides and has been tanned or chemically treated for a strong, durable, and flexible material that can be used in various items, including furniture, clothing, footwear, tools, and sporting equipment.
Human beings have used leather for over 7000 years, preparing hides by soaking, removing hair, liming, bleaching, and pickling.
Tanning stabilizes proteins to preserve the animal hides and, after tanning, leather can retain its color, shape, and texture for decades. A pair of leather shoes is expected to last as long as ten years.
What Is Bonded Leather?
The real confusion when determining the difference between faux and synthetic leather arises when the concept of bonded leather is introduced.
Bonded leathers combine a top layer of faux leather with backings made from processed hide scraps. However, bonded leathers have just been an effective cost-reducing marketing ploy, but they don’t improve the quality of the material.
There is no reason to be using genuine leather as a backing material. Still, it’s easier to sell as a hybrid, leather-like material that isn’t 100% synthetic and resembles “real leather”. Suppose you want to purchase leather furniture and can’t afford genuine leather.
In that case, bonded leather offers you nothing more than faux or synthetic leather, so don’t fall for the pitch that bonded leather is somehow superior.
To help you make the best decision that suits your specific needs, here’s a look at how the different categories of leather compare.
Genuine vs. Faux/Synthetic vs. Bonded Leather: How Are They Different?
Leather has been used as a common manufacturing material for millennia, as discovered in archeological excavations of ancient societies and nomadic tribes. Over the years, we developed several tanning processes, such as Vegetable tanning, chrome tanning, aldehyde tanning, brain tanning, and alum tanning.
However, our use of leather has faced criticism due to the environmental impact of rearing cattle, chemicals in the tanning process, and the resulting air pollution.
Following the invention and mainstream adoption of inexpensive plastics (synthetic polymers) in manufacturing processes in the 50s and 60s, plastic leather (pleather), faux, artificial, or synthetic leather and the process of treating PVC (polyvinyl chloride or simply “vinyl”) and PU (polyurethane) with various chemicals, became popularized.
Faux leathers are significantly more affordable than their pricey genuine leather counterparts, are more versatile, and can be polished for glossy/matte finishes.
The maintenance of faux or synthetic leather is also far less taxing than genuine leather, and it rarely cracks or ages. Manufacturers also prefer faux leathers because they don’t require additional stitching or seams.
However, faux or synthetic leather is not as breathable and doesn’t retain its luster for as long, making it susceptible to punctures or tears. It’s also not environmentally friendly due to the waste that artificial leather manufacturing processes produce.
Genuine leather, on the other hand, as a natural material, is absorbent and porous, making it suitable for all seasons because it’s so breathable, you can sweat, and your leather jacket won’t smell.
It also prevents the manifestation of fungi in bacteria, making it a suitable material for shoes. At the same time, it also molds to the shape of the wearer’s feet and keeps the same temperature due to its insulation characteristics.
But the main reason genuine leather is your best option, and far more expensive, is because it lasts for an incredibly long time – far longer than synthetics. Leather can be waterproofed as well.
However, some people don’t want to buy leather for ethical reasons because it requires the rearing and killing of cattle or other animals, which in itself creates a large carbon footprint, and the manufacturing process involves all kinds of pollutants.
The manufacturing process for faux leathers, however, is significantly worse for synthetic or faux leathers. But, for most customers, the major deciding factor will always be the discrepancy in the price.
Price will always be one of the first things people consider. A faux/synthetic sofa, armchair, or chair cover would cost you, on average, between 50% to 100% more if it’s made out of genuine leather.
A faux/synthetic leather sofa could cost you somewhere between $800 and $1200, while a genuine leather sofa of the same size would cost between $1200 and $4400.
This price discrepancy is due to the cheaper, more efficient manufacturing process and the market’s value on well-crafted leather furniture. Industry leaders have set this high standard.
Bonded leather is often priced somewhere between their genuine and faux leather. But, once again, this doesn’t serve any purpose other than to overcharge you for a product that’s no better than faux or synthetic leather.
There are other leather alternatives known as “vegan leathers”, which also serve as alternatives to genuine leather, but do not use pollutants like artificial leathers or kill animals for the materials.
These innovations in leather have led to the creation of leathers made from coffee, banana, apple, grape, pineapple, mushroom leather, coconut water, hemp, stone, cork, recycled rubber, wood, and roses, among countless other plant-based materials.
These are being used by fashion designers for new, ethical clothing lines, by automobile manufacturing giants like Kia, Nissan, Tesla, Chevrolet, Toyota, Volkswagen, Honda, and Ford, among others.
These new vegan leathers are leading to an ethical, environmentally friendly product that could be widely used in our clothing, furniture, and other everyday items.
So, if you’re looking for an affordable product, faux or synthetic leather is your best option. If you want something of high quality, durability, and designed to perfection, genuine leather is for you.
However, if you’re looking for an ethical alternative that has a far smaller environmental impact, vegan leathers are an alternative that you should explore.