Leather is a material that has been historically exploited for both commercial and personal use. It’s also a substance that is environmentally harmful, using many resources such as water and land to create. Now, there are faux leather and vegan leather alternatives available on the market.
Many vegan leather materials can serve as a substitute for animal leather. They can create the same look and feel as real hide without requiring animals to die for them. You might yourself in a quagmire of uncertainty when trying to pick an alternative leather material.
Of course, none of them require using any animal byproducts or animal labor in their creation process. But they are not made the same. With so many options out there, where do you start?
This post will go over some sustainable (or at least less-toxic) alternatives that are comparable or superior in quality to traditional leather products. It will also go over some drawbacks of using certain other alternatives.
Want to know what they are? Keep on reading!
1. PU Leather
PU (polyurethane) leather is a type of plastic that simulates the feel and look of popular leather. It is a popular alternative to the more traditional and animal-based leather.
PU stands for polyurethane, which is a material that’s usually synthetic. It is not as durable or environmentally friendly as traditional leather.
The process of turning PU into usable leather is called “textile finishing”. It involves stretching it over molds, spraying it with finishes like paint or dyes, then sealing it with sealants such as varnish.
This can make PU feel stiffer than animal-based leather. It also has the potential to use hazardous materials in the manufacturing process.
As veganism becomes more and more popular, so does the demand for this material grow. PU offers the look of leather in clothes, furniture, or shoes without any compromise on ethics. But it is far from sustainable and is heavily green-washed as a vegan alternative.
2. Recycled Faux Leather
Recycled vegan leather is a great sustainable alternative to animal leather. It is also one of the most ethical and sustainable materials for vegan-friendly products.
Polyester and PU leather do not break down in the environment. By recycling polyester and PU fabrics, we can decrease the volume of waste in our landfill sites.
The process of recycling uses less energy than producing new material from scratch. That makes this type of recycling more environmentally friendly than other types of recycling.
3. PVC Leather
The production of PVC leather is an environmentally toxic process and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The harmful chemicals used in the process include polyvinyl chloride, formaldehyde, and ammonia.
These substances are known to disrupt the nervous system, irritate skin and respiratory systems, and increase rates of cancer, birth defects, and abortion complications among other things.
They are also known to cause developmental problems with fetal growth in pregnant women. What’s worse is that these substances can be found throughout the product long after it’s been manufactured as well!
PVC leather alternatives are available on many different levels. Synthetics like pleather (PU) and vinyl (PVC) are two of them. Many people still view PVC leather as an inferior substitute. It is used for almost any purpose, from furniture to shoes and clothing.
Micro-suede is one material that can provide a soft and luxurious texture while still being cruelty-free. Micro-suede fabric is a rayon fiber and polyurethane laminate with a polyester backing. It was traditionally used in flooring and carpets.
It’s stretchable and durable, making it a good alternative to animal leather. It is stain-resistant and easy to clean. However, keep in mind that micro-suede is synthetic in nature and not biodegradable. This means that it is not sustainable in the long term.
Additionally, micro-suede is used in clothing, upholstery, and automobiles. Overall, it’s a quite popular fabric that is easily accessible in mass.
5. Bio Leather
Bio leather is a type of vegan leather that is made of soy, corn, or tree bark. A bio-leather product will come in many different textures and styles, from soft to tough.
Bio leather is composed of natural or synthetic materials such as wood, cellulose pulp, or cotton. These materials get treated with an environmentally friendly solution. The solution is made using byproducts of fruit juice production and alcohol fermentation.
This makes it lighter in weight but still incredibly durable like animal leather. Its versatility is its main attraction: It can be used anywhere where natural or synthetic leather would usually be used.
The process of making bio leather involves many steps. They consist of heat forming, molding, and cooling the raw materials before becoming a finished product.
Yatay is a brand offering bio-based shoes that are hand-made. They’re crafted from corn, wood, recycled tires, and recycled plastic bottles.
6. Corn Leather
Corn leather is a semi-natural material composed of 50% corn waste and approximately 47% to 82% polyurethane. The ratio differs depending on the manufacturer producing it.
Corn leather is on the market as a popular vegan alternative to animal skin. It’s a robust, durable material that is tougher than animal hide. It’s similar to bio-leather, although it’s not completely biodegradable.
Corn leather lasts up to 5 years and is more breathable than PU leather. Corn leather is eco-friendly and long-lasting. But it’s the growing of corn that can be hazardous to animals and ecosystems if it is not cultivated organically.
Will’s Vegan Store and Solari Milano are some of the brands offering vegan corn leather shoes.
Pinatex is a type of vegan leather made from recycled pineapple crops. It is created by immersing pineapple leaves in hot water followed by using a chemical extraction process. This removes the natural tannins while retaining the fiber’s cellulose.
Ananas Anam is the brand that innovated this material. Pinatex can be used in a variety of applications with different levels of thickness or softness based on customer preference. Pinatex has been used in shoes, bags, clothing, and accessories.
The material is odorless, hypoallergenic, and anti-bacterial in nature. It can be dyed naturally and will last three to four years with proper care.
Pinatex is waterproof, lightweight, versatile, and long-lasting. It is also one of the most environmentally friendly and ethical vegan leather alternatives available.
Unlike plastic leathers, Pinatex is biodegradable. In fact, the production technique is so environmentally friendly that even the byproducts may be composted.
8. Apple Leather
Apple leather is a material made using the discarded skin and cores of apples. It was first developed by Frumat and made into bags in 2019.
Apple leather is partly synthetic and partly bio-based. Apples make up to 50% of the finished product, with the resin accounting for the rest. The resin consists of polyurethane. Because it is partly synthetic, it isn’t fully biodegradable.
The material is used to make shoes, bags, and accessories. Dooeys, Veerah, Allégorie, Samara, and Komrads are a few top brands offering products made from apple leather.
9. Mango Leather
Mango leather is a leather substitute that is made from the skin of a variety of mango called the Alphonso. It is not made from animal hides or skins, but instead grown naturally and then processed using a technique known as “fleshing”.
The mangoes are de-seeded and their pulp is collected. The pulp is then added to a binder and the mix is spread into huge trays. Finally, the surface is screeded for a smooth finish along with waterproofing, dyeing, and embossing.
Mango leather has many benefits to it over animal-based leather. It is more durable, resistant to water damage, and much easier to clean.
Mango leather is used to make bags, wallets, clothing, and accessories. Luxtra, a conscious luxury brand, offers a range of products made from this material.
10. Cactus Leather
Cactus leather has been a recent discovery in the fashion world. It has a luxury quality feel with a natural look to it that comes from the actual plant materials used to make it.
Cactus leather is created by harvesting mature prickly pear cactus leaves which only take 6-8 weeks to fully grow. Proteins and fibers are then extracted from the leaves to create an organic bio-resin, which is then coated on a carrier.
Cactus fields take up a lot of carbon just in their growing phase. This means they significantly reduce carbon emissions from the atmosphere. They also need very less water to thrive making them resource-efficient.
The texture can be smooth or rough to the touch and the material can be made to be highly biodegradable. Desserto is a brand that is at the forefront of producing cactus leather.
11. Grape Leather
Grape leather is a modern alternative to animal products, created from centrifuged grapes and water. The main ingredient is waste products from wine production.
This vegan material can be molded into shapes or used as a paint-like surface. It also has the appearance of real leather and is great for vegan shoe designers, who often struggle with achieving an appealing natural look.
While it’s only been around for about two years, grape leather is quickly becoming one of the most popular materials in the fashion industry. This is because it’s sustainable and cruelty-free.
It won’t rot or cause the animals to suffer. It can be recycled since it never touches petrochemicals, unlike other vegan fabrics that involve lanolin or waxes like fishnets and pleather.
Designer Alexandra K creates handbags and shoes out of various materials such as grape and corn leather. Italian-based startup Vegea is also a manufacturer of this material and is collaborating with H&M to produce a mass collection.
12. Mushroom Leather
The concept of creating a leather-like substance out of mushrooms began in
2012 with product designers Philip Ross and Jonas Edvard. They experimented with homeware items made from mushroom leather and found it to be versatile.
To make mushroom leather, masses of mycelium are grown to the correct size. Upon harvest, it is properly removed from the bag and compressed to the desired shape and size.
The texture and color of the material can be altered during the compression process. Due to this, the output can look and feel like any kind of animal leather, from cow to alligator, and python skin. Lastly, the mushroom is dried and ready for use.
The production of mushroom leather is completely closed-loop. Closed-loop production in fashion requires that the materials be derived from post-consumer waste.
These materials are recycled, reused, and turned into sustainable products. Post-consumer waste used in the production of mushroom leather includes maize cobs, wood chips, and straw. The material is biodegradable and compostable.
Mushroom leather or MuSkin is lightweight, strong, durable, and versatile. It is suitable for a broad range of products. It is currently being used to make shoes, accessories, handbags, and clothing.
Bolt Threads and MycoWorks are manufacturers innovating with mushroom leather in big ways.
13. Cork Leather
The bark of Cork Oaks is used to produce cork leather. 80% of the world’s cork comes from Europe’s Mediterranean area. China and India are other countries producing high-quality cork.
The cork is harvested by hand in boards from the tree, dried for six months, boiled in water, flattened, and pressed into sheets. The cork sheet is then placed against a fabric backing, which is glued by a naturally occurring adhesive found in the cork called suberin.
The ultimate result is a flexible, lightweight, soft but strong leather-like material. Cork’s honeycomb cell structure makes it a great thermal, electrical, and acoustic insulator. Cork quality varies: there are seven recognized grades, with the best cork being smooth and blemish-free.
Cork leather has a smooth, glossy sheen that improves over time. It is also naturally water-resistant, flame-resistant, and hypoallergenic. Cork’s elasticity ensures that the article will keep its shape. It doesn’t absorb dust and hence is easier to clean.
It is also easily recyclable, completely natural, and one of the best vegan leathers on the market right now.
There is no winning when it comes to traditional leather or faux leather-based on plastic. One is rooted in cruelty with livestock farming impacting the planet. The other emits carcinogenic toxins during production, use, and disposal.
While recycled PET leather is the better choice compared to animal leather, it isn’t the most sustainable. Some bio-based leathers also contain plastic, for e.g. apple leather.
It’s best to do your research when choosing a product to know what kind of PU is used. Some brands use eco-PU which can be water-based or plant-based. It has a smaller environmental impact than both plastic and animal leather.
With the rising demand for sustainable vegan leather alternatives, more innovations are on their way. The future is leaning towards bio-materials. These are materials that don’t take up resources, and are carbon neutral or negative, whilst supporting communities.
Pineapple leather, grape leather, mushroom leather, coconut leather, and cork leather are fantastic examples of sustainable biomaterials. The fashion industry and the world at large are slowly but surely moving towards a sustainable ethos.