The Problem With Vegan Leather & 5 Good Alternatives

Joyce Aerts

Leather doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to the environment. Animals are bred and killed, hundreds of litres of water are wasted, and excessive quantities of dangerous toxins are released during the tanning process. That’s why we shop for vegan leather instead. Animals remain unharmed, and “vegan” means green, eco-friendly and good for the environment, right? In reality, that’s not always the case. 

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Vegan leather kills too.

The most popular leather alternative right now is polyurethane (PU), a synthetic plastic polymer made using fossil fuels. While you would not link this type of leather directly to the mistreatment and death of animals, the fossil-fuel-based plastic used to produce this leather alternative causes just as much damage. The extraction of fossil fuel destroys nature, and in doing so, it displaces and kills animals and ecosystems.

This synthetic leather alternative also can’t fully biodegrade. When it partly decomposes, it releases toxic particles which are harmful to the health of animals and the environment. 

No more buying leather?

Conscious consumerism can be challenging, but luckily there are plenty of leather alternatives that do not wreak havoc on the environment, animals or people. One option is to go for secondhand, repurposed or recycled leather items. Note the difference between the latter two: repurposed leather is a new product made out of second-hand leather items, while recycled leather is a new material made from shredded leather scraps and residues from leather product manufacturers.

While these leathers are a more sustainable alternative than their newly produced counterparts, they are yet not vegan. If you want to go with faux leather, plant-based alternatives are your best bet. Instead of using synthetic materials to recreate leather, natural materials like pineapple, mushrooms and seafood waste are processed into materials that look like, feel like and are as strong as the real deal. 

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Plant-based leather alternatives.

Pineapple leaves

Piñatex is a natural leather alternative made of pineapple leaves. The cellulose fibres extracted from pineapple leaves are strong and flexible enough to create a durable material that resembles real leather. Leather expert Carmen Hijosa was the first to see the potential of the fibres for creating faux leather. Her brand Ananas Anam provides extra income for pineapple farming communities in the Philippines by producing a sustainable leather alternative out of a byproduct that would otherwise go to waste.

Unfortunately, not all materials in piñatex are recyclable. It contains a plastic called polylactic acid (PLA); while this material is biodegradable, it takes a very long time to break down and often needs to undergo a specific industrial process that most recycling programs can’t handle to be reusable.  Additionally, the petroleum-based resins used to coat and finish the pineapple leather are non-biodegradable. Even though pineapple leather isn’t completely sustainable, its impact on the environment is still significantly smaller than that of animal leather. 

Mushroom roots

Mushroom leather is made from mycelium, a root-like underground network of fungus. The mushrooms grow on sawdust or agricultural waste; when cultivated on a flat surface, the mycelium forms a thick mat. With a few mild physical and chemical alterations, this mat transforms into a fabric with similar durability to, and that looks and feels exactly like leather.

Not only does this process convert the mushroom root waste into sustainable plant leather, but the mycelium also absorbs large amounts of carbon dioxide. When done right, production of this plant-based leather may actually play a hand in helping control climate change. In addition, growing and producing mushroom leather takes only a few weeks, whereas, it takes years to raise a cow for the production of animal leather.

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Seafood shells

Coffee and seafood doesn’t sound like a great combination. That was until the creation of Tômtex, a biodegradable leather alternative made from the waste of these two ingredients. Seafood shells and coffee grounds are mixed, poured into a mould, and air-dried for two days. Everything happens at room temperature which means the process doesn’t require any heat, saving energy and reducing carbon production. The result is a durable, water-resistant fabric with beautiful crocodile or snakeskin patterns.

Up to 8 million tonnes of seafood shells and 18 million tonnes of coffee grounds are treated as food waste every year, which could be reduced significantly by turning these materials into a sustainable fabric for clothing, accessories and furniture. But the cycle doesn’t end there; at the end of its life, the material can even be recycled or degraded and used as a fertilizer for plants. 

Coconut water

You might know coconut water as a refreshing beverage, yet most of the water that’s sourced is never even used! An innovative textile start-up is trying to change that. Malai is based in Kerala, India. The company uses the otherwise wasted coconut water to create a bio-composite material that looks and feels like leather. This leather alternative is a textbook example of a circular material. Because it’s compostable, this agricultural waste product ends its life back at the farm as a nutrient for soil.

How do you turn water into a leather-like fabric? Mature coconuts are widely used in the food industry. The water from these coconuts is fermented, which results in the formation of a sheet of cellulose. The sheet is harvested and enriched with natural fibres from hemp, teak leaves, banana stems and agave leaves. It is then refined, treated and dyed until it forms a textured, water-resistant and biodegradable leather alternative for bags, shoes and wallets.

Cactus leaves

Cactus leather, also known as Nopal, is one of the most durable leather alternatives out there. It can survive ten years or more, depending on how and how often it is used. The material is free of phthalates, PVC and toxic chemicals and feels as soft as real leather.

The production process of this incredibly durable material is also very sustainable. Cactus plants need very little water to grow; rainwater is enough to keep the plants happy and healthy. To make this leather substitute, mature leaves are harvested while the core of cacti stays intact to allow new growth for re-harvesting. The leaves are sun-dried for three days and mixed with non-toxic chemicals to form a leather-like material. 

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Where to shop these alternatives?

Even though sustainable leather alternatives are on the rise, it will take a while before they’re widely available in mainstream retail. Plant leather items are often produced on a smaller scale to ensure good quality, ethical working conditions and a sustainable production process. Here are a few brands for your radar.

Frida Rome’s WEEK/END handbag is made with soft cactus leather and vegan eco suede. The bag is consciously created in Britain and can be worn both as a shoulder and crossbody bag. Another cactus leather item to add to your ethical wardrobe is House Of Fluff’s Trucker Jacket. This red beauty is the perfect statement piece to spice up any outfit thanks to its oversized fit and bold hue. 

Ethical German brand EVE + ADIS sells bags, wallets and other accessories made from plant leathers, such as their elegant Gypsy Wallet made with piñatex. Another great brand to discover is Santos; check out the elegant cactus leather Agave Triangular Tot and Pineapple Leather Bucket Hat. Another brand to consider is  UK-based brand Votch, and their beautiful watch collection with Piñatex straps. The classic Black & Piñatex watch is both on-trend and timeless and can be worn with any outfit. 

While plant-based leather alternatives aren’t widely available just yet, change is well on its way. With the constant innovation of sustainable and ethical ways to produce leather, we will begin to see a move towards true green production and even less merit in the continued killing and polluting in the name of fashion.

Joyce Aerts

"Saying “don’t compare yourself to others” is easy. It’s inevitable, we all do it. Therefore, there’s great power in the realization that others aren’t as perfect as they appear. Edited online images don’t have dimples, bumps or wrinkles, but humans do. In order to protect ourselves, we need to change our mindsets. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then that is where we’ll start."

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