There’s no doubt that eating vegan has exploded in popularity, with a quarter of a million people taking on the recent Veganuary challenge by going plant-based for the month of January this year. But veganism isn’t just about skipping the cheese course – instead, it’s much more of a lifestyle choice.

The Vegan Society says: "Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose."

So it’s not just about the food on your plate, but the clothes, shoes and accessories you wear too.

"More and more people are aware that animal skin is only ever ‘natural’ on the animal who was born with it – and that it must be treated with a whole host of chemicals to stop it from decomposing," says Yvonne Taylor of PETA. Luxury brands, from Gucci to Burberry, are leading the charge by going fur-free, and use of leather could very well be heading a similar way.

Our shopping habits are changing too, as more and more plant-based material options – including so-called vegan leather – are becoming available, so it’s no surprise the fashion industry is following suit. But what is vegan leather made of, and how do all the options differ?

What is vegan leather?

H&M Conscious Collection
The latest H&M Conscious collection uses ‘leather’ made from pineapple leaves for its boots (H&M/PA)

It basically does what it says on the tin – a material that looks and feels like real leather but has been produced with no animal products.

This means there’s a whole lot of innovation going on in the sector, as fashion brands search for materials that look like the real thing but are also ethical and – if lucky – environmentally-friendly too.

Topshop vegan leather shoes
Topshop’s vegan leather shoes (Topshop/PA)

High-street brands have been noticing this demand for cruelty-free fashion and have started diversifying their offerings. Marks & Spencer has a whole range of vegan footwear and in April Topshop released its first 100% vegan shoe collection – complete with faux snakeskin and mock-croc.

What kinds can you get?

Pineapple growing
It turns out the flesh isn’t the only useful part of a pineapple fruit (iStock/PA)

Vegan leather broadly falls into three categories: First is what you might know as ‘pleather’ – artificial leather that’s actually made from plastic (more on that later).

The second category is rapidly expanding and is made from natural materials which aren’t as potentially environmentally damaging. One of the most exciting recent examples of this is Piñatex, which claims to be a "natural, sustainably-sourced, cruelty-free material". It’s a by-product of the pineapple harvest; a leather-like material is made using fibres from the fruit’s leaf. These leaves are traditionally thrown away, but now there’s a new kind of use for them. It’s slowly reaching the mainstream – H&M’s recent Conscious Collection features Piñatex boots.

And finally there’s lab-grown leather, which might not be natural but it’s renewable and eco-friendly. It’s currently in development – Taylor calls it "exciting" and says: "This innovation, in which real animal skin is grown without raising and killing an animal, will allow designers to use actual leather without harming animals and with less impact on the environment."

Are there any issues with vegan leather?

Unfortunately, not all alternatives are quite the same. Many of the most commonly used vegan leathers are made of plastic – like the old-school PVC or the newer and more popular polyurethane, and those come with their own environmental issues, as they’re not biodegradable.

It’s a tricky situation, because even though animal-based leather is biodegradable and not adding to the plastic problem on the same scale, tanning – where animal hides are made into leather using certain chemicals – is an environmentally polluting process.

Perhaps this is why many people are putting their hopes into the new innovations being developed, which have the potential to be both friendly to animals and the environment.

"Vegan leather has come a long way since the days of ‘pleather’," says Taylor, who prefers to focus on new innovations that mean "natural, renewable materials can be transformed into durable, high-quality, stylish, eco-friendly fabrics that will replace cruelly obtained and highly polluting animal skins".

Veganism and eco-credentials often come hand in hand, so it’s no surprise many of the newer alternatives are striving to be as environmentally-friendly as possible. It’s a fast-moving market so we can expect many new innovations in the future, as more people want to shop in a way that’s sustainable, ethical and cruelty-free.