Want to know a secret? Here it is: the leather industry is terrified. As plant-based alternatives are gaining ground with designers and consumers, traditional leather is scared of being phased out, which is why it is so quick to attempt to discredit vegan fashion by spreading claims that it's all just “plastic” and bad for the planet. One of its most frequent claims is that vegan fashion isn't biodegradable.
By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert.
Is there any truth to this? Well, let's look into what biodegrading means. Put quite simply, “biodegrading” is just a fancy word for “rotting” – a natural process that goes on with many natural ingredients, from fruit and plants to leather. As soon as the skin is taken off a dead animal, it begins to biodegrade. But as the leather industry wouldn't wish for their products to biodegrade in the wearer's wardrobe, it treats the skins with toxic substances such as aluminium, chromium, and coal-tar derivatives in order to, well, keep it from biodegrading. So animal leather is biodegradable in its natural state, but the very unnatural process of tanning alters this.
When it comes to the biodegradability of vegan leather, it's true that until recently, most vegan leathers were made from petroleum-derived plastics. Today we have plant-based alternatives such as leather made from apples, wine grapes, cactus and cork to name a few. Many of these, however, are at the moment still not biodegradable – to that point it must be said that they are very new on the market and new developments are still being done to make them as sustainable as possible, including exploring options for biodegradability.
But what is even more exciting is that the “is it biodegradable?” question is about to be eliminated thanks to new technology and production processes that contribute to creating plant-based, animal-free solutions that are indeed entirely biodegradable.
One such invention is Treekind, ideated by natural materials company Biophilica. This leaf-based material is still in the development stages and research is still being done to ensure that the material is the best it can be. Treekind is made from urban plant waste, as well as agricultural and forestry waste. It uses only 1% of the water that leather production would use and is entirely vegan. No formaldehyde or pesticides are used in its production, making it even more planet-friendly. The material was developed by former art director Mira Nameth during her MA at the Royal College of Art, and takes about 8 months to biodegrade if submerged in a large body of water.
Another company breaking norms when it comes to vegan leather is Mirum. Created by Natural Fiber Welding, this material completely eliminates any plastic-based ingredients, making it a game changer both when compared to animal skins and traditional vegan leathers. The “plants, not plastic” ethos adopted by Natural Fiber Welding means that circularity and biodegradability are at the top of the agenda: Mirum is in fact made from plant waste, welded together. Its main components are biodegradable polymers and it contains no synthetic binders. Unlike many conventional vegan leathers, it has no polyurethane coating.
Mirum's unique qualities are attracting designers who habitually work with animal-derived leather. One of them is Gianna Caravello, founder of handbag label Modher, which focuses on plastic-free materials. But while developing her brand, Caravello realised she was missing someone out: the growing vegan consumer base. "I know that people of all kinds are looking for fashionable pieces that they can feel good about wearing,” she says. “Crafting a piece that speaks to folks who would prefer not to purchase hide-based leather was a worthy endeavour for me, but only if I could do it right. Most vegan leather pieces on the market today are made from plastics, and their full life cycles are harmful to the environment. I found in Mirum a valid alternative to leather and on the consumer side, especially the vegan or vegetarian community that refuses products from animal origin, this provides an alternative to non-leather products that uses only safe, natural, renewable ingredients, and it is biodegradable."
Mirum is what prompted the company to try vegan leather. Looking to use materials that are as sustainable as possible, Caravello came across this cleaner, plastic-free solution, and her brand now offers the Maya bag, which is made from Mirum.
One more brand that loves Mirum is Melina Bucher. This vegan label's sleek, office-appropriate Bailey bag is the perfect example of how far vegan fashion has come – it would be impossible to even imagine that this upscale accessory is, in fact, made from waste. "I found this company over two years ago,” recalls the brand's founder, eponymous Melina Bucher. “At that time, there was nothing more than small samples of a material and a very strong vision: a material that is 100% bio-based, with only natural inputs. Plants, not plastics. I was immediately smiling, as this was exactly what I was looking for!”
Bucher also reminds that the term 'biodegradable' is a bit fuzzy, depending on location. “The term is defined very different from country to country. In California, biodegradable means it would need to biodegrade to a large degree in ten days (which would not make sense for any textile material). Mirum is bio-neutral, meaning that as it only uses natural raw materials, the material will biodegrade in nature without doing any harm to the environment, and putting nutrients back to the nature itself.”
Bucher went on to create the Bailey bag, its first and only Mirum design to date. But possibly not the last. “We are very proud to be one of the first brands worldwide to have launched a handbag made with Mirum. It is the first huge milestone in our journey to become a completely circular brand, and I would love to see more brands following.”
Judging from the direction that the market is currently taking, they most definitely will. Mirum and others similar to it represent a notable improvement from current systems – and a big dash of hope for the future.
By Sascha Camilli
Sascha Camilli is a vegan fashion writer, speaker and activist. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, you can read our interview with her. You can also follow her on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.
All images via Melina Bucher
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