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9 Vegan Plant-based Leather Alternatives that are Revolutionising the Fashion Industry 

Sustainable fashion & accessories materials made of natural sources [Ultimate Guide]

We bring you some of the most revolutionary vegan & plant-based leather alternatives for a new way to create & design fashion. One that is sustainable and as natural as possible! Coconuts, Grapes, Cactus, Apples, Mushrooms… discover them all (including a sustainability check!)

Leather has been a part of life for a long; leather is one of the classic, durable materials which have been used by humans for thousands of years. There are many harmful aspects of leather to the environment and humankind. Plus the leather industry is full of cruelty and mass slaughtering; if you see the actual scenario with your own eyes, you won’t like to buy anything of such kind. 

There are plenty of reasons why you should buy more vegan or eco-friendly fashion articles and why they are high in demand. Talking about leather, people are looking for cruelty-free alternatives to authentic leather. That is why vegan leather is in trend, and businesses are growing under this section. However, vegan leather is made up of polyurethane or polyvinyl-chloride material. There are many Vegan Plant-based Leather Alternatives you will find.

The environmental impact of the leather industry

Whereas we are okay with brands that repurpose materials such as leather or denim to make their collections, we also come across plenty of brands that use leather and claim to be sustainable because it is a “by-product” of the meat industry. 

But facts are that leather is a multi-billion dollar global industry. So there is a profit, meaning after cows, sheep and goats are slaughtered, there is already a big truck waiting to get all the skins. 

Let’s understand that Leather is “not” just a by-product of the meat industry. 

Environmental impact of the leather industry

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates referenced in the Textile Exchange report 2021, around 1.4 billion hides and skins of animals were used in global leather production in 2020¹– around one animal for every 5 people on the planet.

Turning skin into leather requires massive amounts of energy and dangerous chemicals:  mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and various oils, dyes, and finishes (many of them cyanide-based). Not to mention that most leathers are chrome-tanned, a lot of which gets washed away into our fresh water supplies during the process of making leather. 

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Materials Sustainability Index – which measures impact up to the point of fabrication – gives most leathers an impact of 159 (compared with 44 for polyester and 98 for cotton), due to its high contribution to global warming and water use and pollution. 

According to the EPA, 70% of the water pollution in the US comes from factory farms. Leather in fact has the greatest impact on eutrophication because the wastewater often flows untreated to local waterways.

People who work in tanneries – including children as young as 10 in some countries – risk severe side- effects from exposure to these toxic substances. Acute effects include irritation to the mouth, airways and eyes; skin reactions; digestive problems, kidney or liver damage; lung damage; long-term cancer and reproductive problems. People who work in tanneries or live close by often suffer from cancer, lung damage caused by exposure to toxic chemicals used to process and dye the leather. 

9 Vegan Plant-based Leather Alternatives that are Revolutionising the Fashion Industry
Photo Credit: Johannes Pokorn from Unsplash

What is & what is not plant-based leather?

Like the word says: plant-based leather is made from plants. And as you know, plants are not plastic

Although PVC and PU are the common synthetic leather used as vegan leather, they are not plant-based, and neither sustainable. PU does not have a long life-span. At the end of their lifecycle, it must be placed in landfill as it is not recyclable or biodegradable. Right on the massive landfill pile it will have a hard time decomposing in landfills – and once it does, think: synthetic is synthetic. 

This kind of fake leather is also known as “Pleather“, which is a common term for these plastic leathers. In this sense, those brands that make you want to believe it’s sustainable just because they carry the label “vegan”, yet it’s full-on synthetic leather- that we call it greenwashing. Despite all these issues, PU leather is the most common and economical leather alternative used in the fashion industry. 

Greenwashing note: Unfortunately, we’ve observed way too often that the well-known organisation “PETA-Approved Vegan” easily gives away the “Vegan” certification to brands that carry products made out of synthetic leather. Again, do your research and always read the label to learn what are the actual materials hiding behind any “eco-friendly” or “ethical” tag.

So why should you always choose plant-based leather over synthetic leather? Unlike Pleather, vegan leather does not harm the environment but also since it’s plant-based, vegan leather is a type of sustainable material that advocates for animal welfare as well. 

Among all the improved environmental benefits of using plant-based leather, this sustainable material also has some great qualities, such as waterproof, lightweight, durable and many more! 

So let’s find out some plant-based leather alternatives, which are not only trending among fashion brands, but actually have become a revolutionary material that for sure more eco & sustainable brands will be adopting in the near future. 

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Plant-Based Leather Alternatives 

A few decades ago we probably never thought that leather could be made out of plants. But thanks to the latest technologies and innovations in the sustainable fashion industry, we are now able to access the most beautiful accessories.

From shoes, belts, jackets, backpacks or tote bags – and basically anything you can think of that before was made out of traditional leather! This extends to home textile, furniture, decoration and even automotive.

Now that we’re all excited about the promising future of plant-based leather alternatives, let’s explore some of the most common vegan leathers in the market.

1. Cork Leather

Cork comes from a cork oak tree, a natural fibre; the cork oak tree itself has a lifespan of 300 years. Annually cork forests produce approximately 200,00 tonnes of cork. In a cork oak tree’s lifetime it can produce up to 18 harvests of bark, making it a renewable material that doesn’t impact the tree’s natural lifecycle through extraction. 

Also, in the extraction process there’s no waste, and in fact, it benefits the health of the tree by extending its life. Once harvested, the cork is air-dried naturally for 6 months before it is processed. So if you are looking for plant-based alternatives to vegan leather, cork is one of the best options.

Cork-made leather is great if you like sturdy and quirky and waterproof plant-based accessories. As it’s stain-resistant, water-resistant, and scratch-proof it does not require high maintenance and can be cleaned with a damp cloth. 

Cork leather is also hypoallergenic, antimicrobial, flame retardant, lightweight, and incredibly soft! At the end of the life cycle, cork is a fully recyclable material; this means it can be recycled into a new sheet of cork giving it a chance to create new products.

Material features:

  • Lightweight
  • Water resistant
  • Can be dyed
  • Easily cut & sewn
  • Water resistant

Sustainability check:

  • Durable
  • Recyclable
  • Benefits cork trees health

Sustainable brands using cork leather:

YOGA BRANDS

Yoloha, Wai Lana Yoga, The Urbivore, Manduka, How Cork, Gaiam, Second Earth, Hugger Mugger, Create Flo, Barefoot Yoga

FASHION & ACCESSORIES BRANDS

Corkor, Apoxylo, Grow From Nature, Arture, Carry Courage 

ethical and eco-friendly yoga accessories, gear and props cork blocks yoloha

2. Mushroom Leather

Mushroom leather is one of the latest innovations and sustainable materials adopted in the world of eco fashion. There are several companies researching mushroom leather, such as MuSkin and MycoWorks.

As we know mushrooms are fungi growing under damp, dark conditions. Fungus feed over dead, decaying plant matter; it can grow to a certain size and shape enabling desired  design features. For example, MycoWorks grows mycelium leather to almost any customisable size, shape and texture in a lab. Here they control the growing conditions: temperature, humidity and CO2. 

The production process of mushroom leather is claimed to be carbon negative because since they can modify some of the fibre density based on the size needs, there is no excess waste. In this sense, lab grown mushroom leather takes a fraction of the time, resources and chemicals in comparison to animal based leather production.

The result is a plant-based leather that is soft in texture and is antibacterial. Also, mushroom leather does not require any harmful chemicals for waterproofing, making it a fully compostable and biodegradable material.

Material features:

  • Flexible
  • Soft consistency texture
  • Antibacterial
  • Breathable
  • Lightweight
  • Water resistant

Sustainability check:

  • Durability
  • Compostable
  • Biodegradable

3. Desserto® Cactus Leather

Cactus leather is made from nopal cactus leaves (aka prickly pear), which grows abundantly in Mexico – from Adriano Di Marti is the company behind the Desserto® cactus leather comes originally from. 

What made the story of these two farming friends so famous, besides their innovation proposing a very sustainable vegan leather solution, was that cactus leather looks and feels the same as authentic leather.

As cacti do not need much water to grow, no chemicals, and it takes only minimum resources – it makes it incredibly sustainable as a material. However, it’s important to note that the product is sustainable only up to 92% due to the presence of 1-2% of poly on its surface.

Cactus leather is durable, organic and comparable in elasticity, feel and quality to conventional leather, thus being suitable for both apparel and interiors. 

Material features:

  • Leather appearance
  • Soft
  • Elasticity
  • Can be dyed
  • Breathable
  • Lightweight

Sustainability check:

  • Durability
  • Organic
  • 2% poly in surface (92% sustainable)
  • Certifications: Vegan by Vegan Society, OEKO-TEX Standard 100, USDA Organic, USDA Biobased Product, PETA-Approved Vegan, Empresa Socialmente Responsable, Global Recycled Standards, Öko Garantie BSC

Sustainable brands using cactus leather:

Mashu, Deadwood 

 

4. Piñatex® Pineapple Leather

Piñatex® brings a vegan leather made out of pineapple leaves. The leaves are a byproduct of the pineapple food industry and makes use of its ‘waste’ while also providing additional income for the farmers, making it an ecologically and socially responsible material.

Piñatex® is a very versatile fashion, as it can be dyed and coated with different metallic finishes. As a non-woven textile it resembles the traditional leather leather material. At the end of its lifecycle, pineapple leather is biodegradable. 

This vegan material is revolutionising the fashion and textile industry

Material features:

  • Can be dyed
  • Coatings & limited texture applications
  • Easily cut & stitched
  • Lightweight

Sustainability check:

  • Durability
  • Biodegradable
  • Pineapple by-product
  • Certifications: Certified B Corporation®

Sustainable brands using pineapple leather:

Maravillas Bags, Kantala, duffle&co

 

5. Malai Coconut Leather 

Malai – (noun) a newly developed material made from entirely organic and sustainable bacterial cellulose, grown on agricultural waste sourced from the coconut industry in Kerala, Southern India.

The company works with the local farmers and processing units, collecting their waste coconut water (which would otherwise be dumped, causing damage to the soil) and repurposing it to feed the bacteria’s cellulose production. One small coconut-processing unit can collect 4000 litres of water per day, which grows 25kg of cellulose.

Malai coconut leather is a flexible, durable material comparable to leather or paper. It is water resistant and because it contains absolutely no artificial ‘nasties’ it will not cause any allergies, intolerances or illness when in contact with the skin.

The coconut leather sheets are produced with different ranges of thicknesses and Malai has also developed a process whereby we can create seamless three-dimensional vessels or objects using a moulding technique (technology under development). 

Malai coconut leather is available in a range of colours achieved through the use of mordant-free natural dyes, and it can develop a soft sheen or patina over time. 

Coconut leather will last many years if properly cared for. Because of its entirely natural composition it is sensitive to humidity, much like paper or leather. To ensure it remains at its best we suggest applying a thin layer of beeswax (either a clear shoe polish or a furniture grade beeswax) or coconut oil to the surface to ensure it remains moisturised.

When stained or dirty, it can be wiped clean with a damp cloth and then left to air-dry (avoid exposure to hot, dry weather after cleaning). Simply apply beeswax to fully restore to its original condition. 

At the end of its lifecycle (usually between 4-8 years), the coconut leather product can simply be placed in with your compostable rubbish and it will naturally break down.

Material features:

  • Naturally dyed
  • Soft
  • Skin-friendly
  • Lightweight

Sustainability check:

  • Durability (beeswax or coconut oil for product care)
  • Organic
  • Compostable
  • Coconut by-product

Sustainable brands using coconut leather:

Malai

6. Apple Leather 

A by-product of the food industry, apple leather is made up of discarded skin and cores of apple skin. Frumat founded this leather substitute in the largest apple growing region in Italy after seeing the amount of waste produced in the apple industry.

Apple leather in appearance resembles real leather but it feels more like paper in the touch. The advantage of using this type of plant-based leather is its possibility to add different backings and coatings. This allows brands to achieve different effects and thicknesses for different functional or aesthetic purposes in their products. 

Apple leather is durable and, at the end of its lifecycle, it’s fully decomposable.

Material features:

  • Leather appearance
  • Easily dyed, embossed or printed
  • Water resistant
  • Breathable
  • Range of thicknesses

Sustainability check of apple leather:

  • Durability
  • Compostable
  • Apples by-product

7. VEGEA Grape leather

The company VEGEA, based in Milan, creates grape leather by working closely with Italian wineries for their by-product including seeds, stalk and skins. 

For every 10 litres of wine produced, about 2.5 litres of waste are generated. From that waste, 1 square metre of grape leather can be made. On a global scale this translates in about 7 billion kilos of grape byproduct per year being produced during wine production, potentially creating three billion square metres of wine leather.

VEGEA created this bio-based leather that requires no toxic solvents, chemicals or heavy metals to produce. grappaSac is their patented process and still under development – as it’s not yet biodegradable. 

The way it’s processed is that the solid remains of grapes are combined with vegetable oil and water-based polyurethane (PUD). This biobased material is then coated onto organic cotton, resulting in a leather alternative made of 78% renewable and recycled raw materials.

Grape leather is comparable in feel to conventional leather, however the result so far is an eco-composite (a combination) material. Unfortunately, the material is not yet biodegradable and is difficult to recycle. For this reason, the company works towards durability and a sustainable and functional design to ensure an extended lifecycle.

Material features:

  • Leather appearance
  • Soft in texture

Sustainability check of apple leather:

  • Durability
  • Apples by-product
  • 22% PU vs. 78% eco-composite (grape by-product & organic cotton)
  • Certifications grape leather: PETA-Approved Vegan; OEKO-TEX STANDARD 100

8. TreeTribe Leaf “Leather”

TreeTribe was borned as a lifestyle brand on a mission to reforest some areas in Thailand. They created this leaf “Leather” (insisting that it’s not actual leather) but it’s a layered material made from sustainably harvested Teak leaves that are mended with fabric and sealed to preserve the beauty of nature’s designs. No harmful dyes are used during the processing of it

Every fashion and accessories piece are truly unique, so we drop you a couple of useful videos below to learn more about leaf leather!

Material features:

  • Strong & resistant
  • Water-resistant
  • Non-toxic dyes

Sustainability check:

  • Durability
  • Organic
  • Tree planting program (give back)
  • Production methods & process not disclosed

 

9. DIY: Want to grow your own SCOBY (Kombucha) leather?

Kombucha is a ferment made by adding a mixed symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (known as SCOBY) to sweetened tea. The bacteria acquire nutrients from the yeast, and grow a protective mass of cellulose monofibres, called a pellicle or mother. The mother floats on the surface of the liquid, and will take the shape of its container. After a few weeks, when it has grown to a thickness of about 10mm, it can be harvested, washed (by hand or machine), oiled and air dried.

The material which results is a flexible, leathery sheet that can be cut, stitched, glued or woven. The mother dyes readily while still wet, and takes the shape of whatever supports it as it dries. Complex shapes can be formed by cutting the sheet into strips, and layering them over a form. As they dry, the wet strips fuse into a continuous sheet. [Source]

If you feel inspired by the idea of growing your own SCOBY (Kombucha) leather we recommend you to check out the full process of our friends over at Grow Your Pantry.

Final Thoughts

Whether you are a brand or a consumer trying to make better decisions, we hope these vegan & plant-based leather alternatives left you inspired. 

When it comes to fashion, make sure to always read the label so that you can shop more consciously and according to your values.

If you want to find the best ethical & sustainable brands, be sure to scroll through Ourgoodbrands Directory!

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