The definition of leather is “a material made from the skin of an animal by tanning or a similar process”. By this definition, it is therefore inaccurate to refer to any item as ‘leather’ if the product is not made from the skin or hide of an animal. PU and PVC products are however routinely marketed as synthetic or imitation leather. In the EU synthetic leather, the inaccurate use of the term leather can be viewed as false advertising, which could result in legal action.
Synthetic materials (also known as synthetic, faux, imitation, vegan or PU leather) is a synthetic material that holds the appearance of leather but is not made from animal skin or hides like genuine leather. The synthetic material consists of natural and/or synthetic fibers, coated with a plastic polymer or similar. Synthetic material is usually made from polyurethane (PU), polyvinylchloride (PVC) or textile-polymer composite microfibres.
Both leather and synthetic material undergo chemical processing in order to manufacture the material. This means that both materials do not biodegrade easily, however since leather is produced from organic material, it has a greater capacity to biodegrade at the end of product life. As an example, Greenpeace has labeled PVC as the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic”.