Leather made out of …what ?
written by Gautam
The land and water usage, the toxic pollution, the cruelty, and the plight of tannery workers mean that conventional animal leather hurts our four-legged friends, our planet and even our fellow bipeds. We need to look for more sustainable alternatives.
A bit of background information to start us off. So far, the default vegan leather has been petroleum-based and more commonly known as Pleather. Short for plastic-leather, it is possibly even more unappealing than its name suggests. Made out of textile coated in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU), its manufacture, use and disposal lead to the leaching of harmful toxins into the environment. Now, people are rising to the challenge, developing non-animal, non-plastic leather-alternatives.
The case against the use of animal leathers has been tainted by the downsides of its petroleum-based alternatives. With the development of new plant-leathers, we may no longer have to have that debate.
Similar to the plant based food sector, innovation is happening on numerous fronts, with people taking different approaches. There are two main areas gaining in momentum: leathers made out of plant material, and leathers grown in a lab.
1. Plant-Based Leathers:
Plant-based leathers are just about arriving on the scene. Fashion and automotive brands, however, are noticing. Volkswagen announced in 2019 that an electric SUV model would use apple leather, and Hugo Boss was one of the first large brands to make shoes out of pineapple leather from Pinatex. AppleSkin and Pinatex, the two most recognized names in plant leather, use wasted parts of fruit that would otherwise be rubbish, tackling two problems at once. The economic yield of the same harvest is improved, and food waste is repurposed.
Apple Leather is made from the bits that don’t make it into your juice, ergo the seeds, core and peel. Highlights include its high durability, that it is biodegradable, and its authentic, sinuous texture. The material is Volkswagen approved and we can probably expect it to gain adopters over time.
Pinatex is the most popular plant-based leather right now (I partially credit its catchy name). It is crafted from pineapple leaves, a large portion of the waste from a harvest. It is a bit unique in that it is a somewhat more rugged and rough version of traditional leather, giving it a distressed and vintage look and feel, suiting items like boots and bags. The company behind it is working on an alternative coating to make it completely biodegradable.
While the word fungus may sound weird associated with your favourite pair of shoes, as it turns out it too can be made into leather. Mylo is a super-soft feeling leather material made out of the mycelium (the miniscule root network of mushrooms). Unlike traditional animal leather that takes years to grow (along with the animal of course), the process behind Mylo can be measured in days. Another mushroom leather innovator, MusKin, uses the caps of mushrooms to make a suede-like material
Other notables are cactus leather, and flower leather made from petals collected from Indian temples.
2. Lab Grown Leather:
Also known as ‘Bio-leather’, this animal leather is grown in a laboratory using a skin biopsy. Although not strictly vegan, this futuristic technique does away with the industrial scale farming that largely explains the footprint of traditional leather. It is highly customizable and is being scaled up right now.
With promising alternatives such as Pinatex, Bio-leather and more, a reality where the fashion industry is less dependent on animal products is within reach. The obvious winners are the animals, but the effects are more far reaching than just that. Less land will be needed for grazing livestock, less food waste will go straight to the landfill, and less toxic chemicals will be used to tan animal skins. And when almost half of all fruits and vegetables are wasted, a quarter of all land is used for grazing, and the proven carcinogens in tannins double tannery-workers morbidity rates, the impacts are hard to ignore. While animal-free leather is still only just emerging from the shadows of the leather industry, it is surely time that we change that. Vote with your wallet the next time you are debating whether or not to add that item to your (virtual) shopping bags.
Quick tip: a great place I found for sustainable, ethical, and vegan leather goods is @willsveganstore, a London based store with a carbon-neutral supply chain! (Non-sponsored Ad)
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Wicker, A. (2019, June 17) Fashion’s long hunt for the perfect vegan leather. Vogue Business.
Stanton, A. These Leather Alternatives Are Changing The Future Of Sustainable Fashion. The Good Trade.
Hirsh, S. (2020, March 6) These Companies Are Making Vegan Leather Out of Plants Instead of Plastic. GreenMatters.
Clemens (2019, July 9). Pinatex – Is Pineapple Leather The Fabric Of The Future?. Dan & Méz.