Imagine a leather that didn't hurt or kill any animals, is a sustainability dream come true, and – if all of that wasn't enough – is excellent in quality. Too good to be true, right? Wrong. There is one natural material that appears to be the answer to many vegan fashionistas' dilemmas: cork.
By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert.
While the last few years have brought about a variety of innovative vegan materials, cork leather is, in fact, nothing new. This natural leather alternative has been used for decades, especially in Southern European countries like Portugal, where cork trees are common and cork is a widespread national industry. Taking a stroll in smaller towns in Portugal and Spain will often bring up at least a couple of local, traditional artisanal shops selling handmade accessories made from cork.
Like any plant-based vegan leather, cork leather is, of course, kinder to the environment than animal leather – and it also doesn't involve the deaths of any animals. Leather kills approximately one billion animals every year, many of them dying in gruesome ways after having lived a miserable life of extreme confinement, painful mutilations and deprivation of all that is normal and natural to them.
A Sustainability Hero
What makes cork such a sustainability superhero? The way it's harvested is truly singular: the cork is taken off the cork tree without having to cut the tree down, and subsequently grows back. That's right, this is a natural material that regenerates itself, all on its own. And not only is cork leather much less harmful to the environment – its production can actually be positive for the planet. How is this possible?
First of all, the trees keep living their lives – and helping to keep the air clean – for years post-harvest. Secondly, each time cork is harvested (approximately every nine years), the tree is able to absorb more CO2 in order to assist the process of the bark growing back. This means that cork trees that are regularly harvested can store up to five times more CO2 than those that aren't used for cork production. Cork trees in Portugal help offset 10 million tons of carbon every year!
Cork Leather Pioneers
Traditional accessory-making in Southern Europe has employed cork for years – but now, fashion brands are turning to it as well. It has been used by Jimmy Choo, Calvin Klein and Chloé to name a few, and is now becoming a staple material in sustainable design.
Helga Douglas, founder of handbag label Svala, says: “Cork is a beautiful, velvety-smooth, distinctive fabric that is one of the most sustainable, biodegradable fabrics available. It is also waterproof, stain-resistant and very durable. Cork oak forests also provide long-term habitat protection for many animal and plant species. It is for these reasons and more that we are so excited to use this amazing fabric in our line.”
Marcela Murco, founder and CEO of vegan brand Murmali (which specialises in cork leather designs), agrees: "When we started our journey to create Murmali the goal was to create handbags as strong and durable as leather but cruelty-free, natural and sustainable. When you filter all the materials available by these conditions, cork leather is the only one that ticks all the boxes simultaneously. Also, one of our favourite things about cork is that the manufacturing process preserves the original pattern of the tree, so all products are unique."
These brands are leading the way in putting cork fashion on the map, both for its eco credentials and its ability to provide a stylish alternative to leather. From an obscure artisanal textile to an ethical-fashion must-have, cork leather is a material with roots in the past – but it is set to become the leather of the future.
By Sascha Camilli
Shop our beautiful Cork Leather Collection of bags and accessories.
Sascha Camilli is the founder of the world's first digital vegan fashion magazine, Vilda Magazine and the host of fashion podcast Catwalk Rebel. She was selected as one of Glamour UK's Most Empowering Nu-Gen Activists and is a frequent public speaker on the topic of vegan fashion and material innovation. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, read our interview with her.
Cover image by Murmali