What Is Cork Leather & Is It The Regenerative Vegan Fashion Solution?

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.

In this story we will find out more about:

  • What is cork leather?
  • How is cork leather made?
  • Is cork leather sustainable?
  • Which brands use cork leather?

What is cork leather?

Cork leather is simply a material made from the cork tree, which can be used as a vegan and sustainable alternative to animal leather when making shoes, bags and accessories – and many other items.

While the last few years have brought about a variety of innovative vegan materials, cork leather is, in fact, nothing new. This natural vegan 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 eco-friendly cork leather.

How is cork leather made?

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!

Is cork leather sustainable?

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.

Using a vegan alternative such as cork leather also uses much fewer limited natural resources such as water, energy and land, and results in much lower CO2 emissions.

Which brands are using cork leather?

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."

You can see our full Cork Leather collection here.

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

You can see our full Cork Leather collection here.

Love sustainable vegan leathers? Take a look at our edits for Cactus Leather, Apple Leather, Grape Leather, Pinatex and MIRUM®.

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 Murmali

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