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 is leather made from corn.
By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert.
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.
So where does corn leather actually come from? This resistant, high-quality material is, like many other plant leathers, made from waste. As it is crafted from non-food grade corn, the production of this leather does not divert resources from the food chain. The non-edible parts of corn can also be used to produce leather, making this a creative way to salvage and re-use waste.
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.
Jessica Kruger, who uses e-ULTRA in bags for her London-based vegan handbag label LUXTRA, has a lot of positive things to say about it. “The great things about corn-based leathers is the flawless finish, the variety of textures available, excellent colour options and low minimum orders.” In her view, environmental footprint is another benefit – which LUXTRA maximises by choosing to produce locally. “We work with an Italian supplier for our corn-leather material so it keeps our carbon footprint low given that our manufacturers are also in Italy.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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