Things sure have changed when it comes to vegan leather. Only a decade or so ago, the term barely existed, and substantially stood for flimsy, shiny “pleather” that made squeaking noises when you walked and in every way looked and felt like the plastic it was.
By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist, and vegan fashion expert.
These low-cost materials were often made from PVC – a textile that has been named by Greenpeace as the most environmentally damaging plastic. Its release of chlorine-based chemicals as well as dioxin emission is highly toxic and damages humans' and animals' health as well as ecosystems. No wonder, then, that when this was presented as an alternative to animal leather, people had reservations.
Fast forward to today, and the term “vegan leather” has a whole new meaning. Years of campaigning for sustainable practices in fashion have resulted in a shift in mindset, leading to material innovation bringing forward new solutions for those who wish to avoid PVC, but also don't want to wear animal skins. Animal leather kills over billion animals every year, many of them subjected to a life of factory farming. Leather, especially cow skins, are also highly damaging to the environment. The resources involved in raising animals on such a large scale, alongside with its off-the-charts greenhouse-gas emissions, have prompted industry reports to find animal leather to be one the most polluting materials in fashion.
With this in mind, the best choices currently available are plant-based leathers, that are free from both PVC and animal skins. Very few of these materials – practically none of them – are entirely free from plastic. But let's not forget that neither is animal leather. Commonly, animal skins are treated with different substances to increase their durability, and this includes coating them in plastic. But material innovation is moving forward, and these concerns are being addressed. In the meantime, here are some of the most interesting and innovative vegan leather options on the market today.
Piñatex was created by Carmen Hijosa at material innovation company Ananas Anam. This leather alternative is made from pineapple leaves that are normally considered waste, giving pineapple farmers an additional stream of income. The leaves are transformed into leather by felting the long fibres together to create a substrate, and leftover biomass can also be used as a fertiliser. Piñatex is naturally crinkly in its texture, but smooth and metallic varieties of it also exist. Pineapple leather is used by Bohema, Rahui London and Svala, among others.
Another waste product from the fruit industry, apple leather is made from peels, cores, pulp, and other leftovers from juicing or apple purees, which are dehydrated and coated onto a canvas. One of the most commonly used apple leather suppliers, Italian company Frumat, offers a material containing 50% apple waste and 50% polyurethane – considerably less than traditionally made 100% PU vegan leathers. This material can also sometimes be composted at the end of its lifespan. Versatile and luxurious, apple leather can be embossed and laser-printed, and it comes in a variety of textures, from a grainy texture similar to cow skin, to smooth and soft like calf leather. Brands that use it include Votch, Mela, Miomojo, A Perfect Jane and Ashoka Paris.
The coolest new kid on the block in vegan leathers is cactus leather, created by Mexican company Desserto. The production of this leather uses the Nopal cactus, which grows locally in Mexico and requires hardly any water. The organic cactus-derived formula is spread on a backing in recycled polyester and recycled cotton, creating a leather that is made to last: Desserto spent a long time focusing on qualities such as making the textile resistant to water, rubbing, and tearing. Perfect for accessories, cactus leather has a smooth, high-quality finish, making it popular with labels such as FRIDA ROME, Thalie, Eslla and SENTIENT.
This smooth, supple vegan leather is made from non-food grade corn, meaning that it derives from non-edible parts of the corn plant and doesn't take any resources from the food industry. It can also be a by-product of the biofuel trade. Free from harsh solvents and other toxic substances, corn leather can have a plant content as high as 70%. If all of that wasn't enough, it can also be recyclable. This is why it's loved by Miomojo, Good Guys Don't Wear Leather and V.GAN, among others.
Cork leather is one of the most eco-friendly materials in fashion. It is harvested without having to cut down the tree, and grows back – a naturally regenerative textile. Portugal and Spain both have abundance of cork trees and a thriving cork leather industry, harnessing its environmental properties: trees used for harvesting cork can absorb up to five times more CO2 than trees that aren't used for cork production – meaning that cork leather is actually good for the planet. Cork trees in Portugal help offset up to 10 million tonnes of carbon every year! Brands like Watson & Wolfe, Svala, and NAE Vegan Shoes use it instead of animal skins in their collections.
Italian company Vegea (the name is a combination of “vegan” and “gea” meaning Earth) created grape leather by using leftovers from Italy's wine-making industry. Every 10 litres of wine can generate as much as 2.5 litres of waste, such as shells, skins and cores – these are usually thrown away. Vegea dehydrates the grape residue and combines it with vegetable oil and water-based polyurethane, coating the resulting material in organic cotton. What makes this material a winner for the environment: Vegea re-uses any water used in its production process, and the final material contains only minimum amounts of non-toxic chemical reagents. Grape leather is a hit with Lerisa, Minuit Sur Terre, Zeta, Bohema, and more.
Plastic-free plant leather
“Vegan leather is all made from plastic” might soon be a phrase of the past: Natural Welding Fiber's invention Mirum is free from any plastic-based ingredients, making it a clear winner over both animal skins and traditionally made vegan leathers. Mirum is made from plant waste, welded together without any synthetic binders. Unlike many conventional vegan leathers, it has no polyurethane coating. It is currently pioneered by Sentient, Svala, Modher and Melina Bucher.
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.
Cover image by Lerisa
For more great content like this in your inbox, sign up to our newsletter, and save 10% off your next purchase, plus great savings throughout the year.