What is Corn Leather? Sustainable Fashion's New Go-To Material

Sweetcorn. Corn on the cob. Corn salad. And...corn handbags? That's right: after pineapples, apples, mushrooms and cactus, the next frontier of eco-friendly plant-based fashion, and particularly vegan leather, is corn leather. Some points we will cover in this story:

  • What is corn leather and how is corn leather made?
  • How much corn is in corn leather?
  • Is corn leather sustainable?
  • Is corn leather durable?
  • Which brands use corn leather?
  • How does corn leather feel?

By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert. 

What is corn leather and how is corn leather made?

Corn leather is a vegan leather that doesn't contain any animal materials, and is therefore much more ethical and sustainable than animal leather. It's often seen as one of the next-generation vegan leathers because it includes organic plant-based material (from corn) but still has the look and feel of animal leather, and is high performing (it's durable and wears well).

Corn leather uses both corn husks and vegetable oils from corn, which tend to be waste products. The corn used for making the base material is a non-food grade crop, so it doesn't divert food resources from human or animal supply chains. The non-edible parts of corn can also be used to produce leather, making this a creative way to salvage and re-use waste.

How much corn is actually in corn leather?

We're used to thinking of synthetics when we hear the word “polyurethane” (PU). But not all PU is made equal. Italian company Fiscatech is responsible for the material e-ULTRA – a polyurethane made from corn. This textile has a bio-content of 69% and doesn't involve the use of harsh solvents. It is also fully recyclable.

Is corn leather sustainable?

Corn leather is the latest one in a long line of naturally derived materials that are rivalling animal leather as consumers move away from what has repeatedly been found to be one of the most harmful materials for the planet. Cow leather – the most commonly used type of animal-derived leather – in particular has been found to have a devastating environmental impact, due to animal agriculture's contributions to pollution, deforestation, and climate change among others. Leather also kills over one billion animals every year.

But likewise, consumers are reluctant to opt for petroleum-derived synthetics, whose impact, while not as alarming as that of leather, is still significant. Solutions like corn leather offer durability and style while setting consumers' minds at ease – with the use of these innovative textiles, no animal deaths are involved, and the impact on the planet is greatly diminished.

Other environmental benefits of corn leather include the fact that it's free from chromium – one of the substances that makes animal-derived leather so harmful. Chromium, which is frequently used in the tanning process, is a highly toxic substance that is harmful not only to workers but also to communities located near tanneries. Corn leather is also GM-free.

Is corn leather durable?

One of the great things about corn leather is how durable and long lasting it is – when looked after. You can simply remove any dirt or residue using warm soapy water – but avoid any harsh chemicals, as with all leathers.

Which brands use corn leather?

Many brands love corn leather because of the flawless finish, the variety of textures available and excellent colour options. Environmental footprint is another key benefit. Brands using corn leather at Immaculate Vegan include Solari Milano, Miomojo, Good Guys Go Vegan, V.GAN, Agazi and Watson & Wolfe.

How does corn leather feel?

One of the reasons why vegan brands choose corn leather is the ease with which it simulates animal skins. Helen Farr-Leander, who chooses corn leather for her vegan men's accessories brand Watson & Wolfe, says: “Corn leather was the first material I discovered that was as soft and supple as animal leather, and that could be crafted and finished in the same way too.” And that's really what it boils down to: in order to replace animal leather, the vegan fashion industry needs an option that is as similar to it as possible in look and feel. And corn leather just might be it.

  • Watson Wolfe corn leather wallet

    Is corn leather the perfect solution? Perfection doesn't exist and this material is no exception: it still contains a percentage of plastic. But so does animal leather, which is often coated in it. And compared to both animal skins and traditionally made PVC and PU, corn leather is a gigantic step forward towards a future of clean fashion.

    By Sascha Camilli

    About Sascha

    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.

    Cover image by Miomojo

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