Leather’s days are numbered as sustainable vegan leather options emerge.
Pineapples, grapes, apples, mushrooms and so much more. No, that’s not the brunch menu. It’s the future of leather.
There is more than one reason to give animal skins a wide berth. Most compellingly, of course, is the cruelty that the production of leather and suede entails. Additionally, however, the process of turning skin into leather has further environmental implications. Firstly, it consumes loads of energy. Secondly, it requires a cocktail of nasty chemicals. And finally, the waste products pollute the larger area.
What’s Wrong With Leather?
The core issue with leather of course is where, or rather, whom it comes from. Cows are the primary source of leather but a number of other animals are used for their skins including kangaroos. “Luxury” leather comes from reptiles, like snake and crocodiles. There’s also ostrich skin leather, among others. Even dogs and cats are sometimes used in leather production.
But the majority comes from cows, typically raised in India and China. India’s relationship with cows is complicated, and because of religious restrictions, they can only be slaughtered in a few states. This means many of the cows are forced to walk (often called “death marches”) from where they’re raised to the state where they will die.
A number of animal rights groups including PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have taken a vocal stance against this practice. The animals are often mistreated and abused by handlers in order to get them to continue on this long walk to their execution.
Other leather procurement is equally disturbing; crocodiles in Southeast Asia are often skinned alive.
Leather is also problematic for the planet. There’s the emissions from methane and CO2 that come from cows — a big problem that needs to be addressed to hit Paris Agreement targets. Livestock make up at least 18 percent of all emissions, more than all of the transportation sectors combined.
Leather tanning is resource-intensive. Most animal leather is chrome-tanned, which produces toxic waste containing high levels of chrome. This type of tanning also produces an abundance of chrome shavings that can wind up in waterways and landfills. AIt can produce some 15,000 gallons of polluted water per day and up to 2,200 pounds of solid waste, including animal skin and hair.
What Is the Best Sustainable, Vegan Leather?
While it may seem counterintuitive, plants and man-made materials make for great leather. There’s even leather grown from yeast cells (#5 on our list).
There are many upsides to leather alternatives. They lack the cruelty component inherent to animal skins. They’re often generally gentler on the environment. Of course, some leather alternatives are more sustainable than others. But far and wide, the process of turning anything other than animals into leather seems to be a boon for the planet.
Another benefit to plant leather specifically is that it’s often making use of waste. Whether that’s pineapple leaves or wine grape discards, this can become a new revenue stream for farmers. This can keep biomass out of landfills, too.
Some plastics are being upcyled into vegan leather substitutes as well, which can help us right our plastic pollution problem.
Made from the cellulose fibre of pineapple leaves, which become waste after harvesting, pineapple leather is tough and durable. It is increasingly used for furniture and accessories and has become the darling of the sustainable fashion industry. Hugo Boss launched a range of shoes in 2019. Plus, who doesn’t love saying their shoes or handbags are made from tropical fruit? Additionally, pineapple leather provides a revenue stream for small scale farmers in developing communities. Companies like Pinatex are making pineapple leather mainstream, so expect to see more of this available from your favorite retailers and fashion houses very soon.
2. Wine Grapes
Grape skin and seed fibres are usually by-products of the wine industry. By using existing machinery, production costs are kept low. Moreover, 7 billion kilos of grape waste – or mare, as it is called — can produce up to 3 billion square metres of wine leather. Italian company Vegea are leading the way and, in 2017, were awarded a €300,000 Global Change Award. The product has already been used by fashion brands & Other Stories and H&M.
Mushroom roots that grow on sawdust or agricultural waste form a thick mat. This can then be treated to resemble leather, and has similar durability. The process is simple, quick and requires minimal equipment and other ingredients. Also, because makers use the roots rather than the mushrooms, it can be done anywhere, regardless of light conditions. Want to try it for yourself? You can order quantities of PETA-approved Muskin online.
4. What Is Pleather?
Pleather is made by bonding plastic coating on to a fabric backing. Although vegan, how eco-friendly a pleather product is will depend on the plastic used. PVC used to be a popular choice, but it releases toxins which are particularly hazardous in small spaces. PVC is a more modern option. It is less hazardous. Additionally, developers are working to reduce its flaws, such as the fact that it reduces hazardous toxins during manufacture.
5. Modern Meadow
This New Jersey-based lab is growing animal-free leather. Moreover, the scientists have the ability to manipulate its qualities, so that it can resemble various types of skin, such as ostrich or alligator. The process involves gene-edited yeast, which produces liquid collagen. From this, a durable, fibrous material is made – and it only takes about two weeks to produce. The company has already created quite a stir, with attention from sports brands and fashion brands alike.
The bark of the cork tree is what gives us this material. It’s long lasting and hard wearing. As well as that, the production of cork leather doesn’t require any chemicals. Cork is sustainable, too – the tree can remain standing, even once it has had its bark removed. The luxury world is already sitting up and taking notice – check out the gorgeous Bottega Veneta pouch, as an example.
7. Recycled Tyres
Tyres take hundreds of years to break down in landfill. With more than 1.5 billion tyres reaching the end of their useful on-road life each year, globally, that’s a big problem. Their durability means that there are increasingly innovative ways to recycle them. Examples include bags, purses and luggage – fashion items that have traditionally been crafted from leather.
8. Recycled Rubber
If it’s rubber, it can pretty much be recycled and made into a vegan leather. Think industrial gloves, flooring, fire hoses … moreover, since rubber lasts for a long time, you’re not only saving the earth from a ‘decompose-proof’ material, but you’re also getting yourself a product that won’t wear out in a hurry.
9. Apple Skin
The apple growing industry has wised up to the waste. Firstly, all of that pulp discarded after juicing; secondly, all of those poor apples deemed not to be pretty enough. Above all, the food waste! Why not use it and prevent (ab)use of animals? Once and dry and in powder form, the apples are mixed with a binders and pigments and stretched out to dry. The result? A PETA-approved ‘leather’ like this one from Samara.
10. Brown Paper
You can do this yourself at home – as well as being easy, it’s fun. There are loads of tutorials and how-to’s online – on YouTube, for instance. The result makes a great for journal cover. Upcycling projects on furniture yield great results, too. Alternatively, you could make a photo frame – a great gift idea.
11. Waxed Cotton
Similarities to leather? It develops a patina over time and improves with age and wear. It is also durable and will last for years to come. Differences from leather? No animals were harmed in the making of that jacket. Additionally, the material is pliable and washable. Depending on the manufacture and thickness, it can also be impressively waterproof.
12. Slate Stone
Well, when stone is a key component in a material, it’s not likely that you’ll question its durability. Furthermore, slate’s natural textures and patterns are not dissimilar from those of leather. Like leather, this material softens and becomes more pliable over time.
13. Tree Bark
Oak tree bark has traditionally been one of the ingredients for tanning animal skins. This method of vegan leather production cuts out the middle (animal) product. As is the case with cork, no tree-felling is necessary to make it. Additionally, it can sliced finely, so it’s great for ‘wearable’ faux-leather products. And of course, only sustainable, fast-growing wood is used.
So it turns out that you can have your tequila and drink it too! With its large, flexible fibrous leaves, agave can be made into a leather substitute. It’s also easy to grow and doesn’t require much water – two facts that give it even more sustainability plus points.
Cactus is soft yet durable – so already, it has some of the hallmarks that make it suitable as a leather alternative. As a desert plant, cacti don’t much require much water. In other words, given that the fashion industry generates around 79 billion cubic litres of water each year, this is a Very Good Thing.
16. Banana Leaf
Banana trees grow quickly – so they are fairly sustainable, as trees go. However, they only bear fruit once – after which, they are chopped down to make way for new fruit-bearing trees. According to data, the world consumes more than 100 billion bananas per year. By making the materials from the felled trees into a leather-like substance, multiple eco-boxes are being ticked.
In 2019, the global coffee market was worth an estimated USD$102.15 billion. However, coffee has a far greater value than just waking us up and providing an excuse for a catch up with a friend or colleague – because how about all of those coffee grounds? To make a cup of coffee, only about 1% ends up in your cup. The rest goes to waste. It’s great to sprinkle on your garden – but equally, as capable of being the basis of vegan leather when combined with other natural ingredients. It’s also great for growing mushrooms – see Number 3!
Think about nettles, and it’s usually in terms of getting a nasty sting while reaching for a plump, delicious-looking blackberry. Others may also have mental images of nettle tea or nettle soup. But nettle leather? If the sensation of a nettle sting is anything to go by, then you’d be forgiven for giving it a miss. But think again. The plants are dried to remove the sting before being separated and twisted into fibres that are flexible, durable and biodegradable. Then, they are spun and dried again. Additionally, nettles require less in the way of water to grow than cotton.
Corn – also known as maize – is the most widely grown crop in the world. Around 1.1 billion metric tonnes of it were produced in 2020. However, once you’ve nibbled off those golden kernels – what about the rest of it? The non-edible part of the plant – corn starch waste – can be used to make a tough leather-like product, which has already been snapped up by the likes of fashion French trainer brand Veja.
No matter which deity you worship, it kind of stands to reason that they don’t want their beautiful creations being wasted. That goes for flowers, too – pretty much everyone loves receiving them (gods as well!) but seeing them go to waste is a shame. Known as ‘fleather’, this alternative to leather is made from flowers used for prayer ceremonies and collected from temples in India. Additionally, it provides a source of income for local women, who collect the discarded blooms.
Hemp is most commonly associated with marijuana. However, some marijuana usage is now legal; additionally cannabis cannabis oil is now readily available for a range of purposes. Although hemp has been used in textile production for centuries, hemp fibre waste residues are now creating hemp leather. As well as its cruelty-free status, it also requires very little in the way of energy or water to produce.
Often, vegan alternatives to leather involve plastic: not the most environmentally friendly of options. However agar agar, a gelatin substance derived from algae, can be used to make a entirely biodegradable plastic. Not only this, but the algae collection process benefits the environment, too. Although the presence of algae helps to balance water ecology, too much of it can damage freshwater habitats. By harvesting the algae and circulating fresh water back into the environment, it’s a double win.
No longer just the answer to your yoghurt cravings, nor the electrolyte boost you need after a workout: coconut is one of the latest leather substitutes. Malai, a startup in India has devised a way to grow bacterial cellulose from coconut water. The resulting biocomposite can then be crafted into a leather-lookalike that’s tough enough for everything from shoes to bags. “I wanted to create and develop methods and materials that didn’t have such a negative impact on our environment. The idea with Malai is to create a vegan alternative to leather that is eco-friendly to make and dispose of. “I wanted to create and develop methods and materials that didn’t have such a negative impact on our environment. The idea with Malai is to create a vegan alternative to leather that is eco-friendly to make and dispose of,” founder Zuzana Gombosova told the Hindustan Times.
24. Ultrasuede® BX
It’s been around for over fifty years, but Ultrasuede® has continued to improve its efforts to create sumptuous suede that’s completely cruelty-free. Plant-based polymer materials are spun with polyester sourced from pre-consumer waste. The result is a textile luxurious enough for everything from fashion to interiors.
25. Cereal Crops
As many of the other examples in this list will have shown, if it has fibres, it can probably provide the substance for a leather alternative. Cereal crops are no exception. Additionally, this form of vegan leather production makes use of non-edible crops.
You may know linoleum as a floor covering. Nevertheless, its underfoot toughness comes, in part, from the fact that it contains natural materials like wood fibres, limestone and pine resin. Leave out the limestone, however, and you have a material that’s more flexible. Additionally, a fibre net pressed between two pieces of this textile gives you a two-sided leather that’s perfect for fashion and furniture.
They require a bit of softening before they are flexible enough for the purpose, but palm leaves make a durable leather alternative. First developed in the Netherlands as a way of making woven rugs, there’s also interest in the material from the automobile industry for car interiors.
28. Upcycled plastic
We all know that plastic pollution is a huge problem. Reducing our use is one solution, but what of all the waste that’s already out there? How about collecting it up and making it into plastic flakes? Once melted down, these then become the basis of a polyester fibre. A single yard of the resulting textile uses no fewer than 18 plastic bottles – bottles which would otherwise end up in landfill or the ocean.
Forget luxury British bag Mulberry and their oft-coveted Bayswater. The paper pulp of mulberry tree leaves creates MulbTex, a material that can coat cotton canvas. Once glazed with tree sap, it’s a water-resistant alternative to leather. It’s a win for silkworms too. Their staple diet of mulberry leaves sees them killed to extract the silk protein from them: this textile goes right to the source and leaves the worms out of it.