Forget about animal skin for leather. Plant-based alternatives are taking over

Written by Zenda Nel
Sustainability Fashion Writer

Leather shoes and other items fashioned from animal hide come at a tremendous cost to humans, animals and the environment. Every year the hides of billions of animals, 3.8 billion to be exact, are used to create leather, with many animals subjected to poor living conditions. The impact on the environment is devastating. We are talking deforestation, water contamination, land overuse and carbon emissions. Not to speak of the ill-health suffered by workers and even children exposed to hazardous chemicals at tanneries.

No wonder there is a big drive to find alternative sustainable sources of leather.

The first such alternative leathers were made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and Polyurethane. However, these are plastics that contain toxins that can easily end up in waterways during production and use. And once ’pleather’ products are discarded, they become part of the global plastic waste problem.

Volkswagen interior with plant-based leather seats
Image via Volkswagen

New plant-based leather enters the scene

Plant-based leather is the latest solution to man’s need for leather shoes, handbags, purses and belts. Leather made from plants promises all the modern, environmentally aware consumer demands: a durable product that looks and feels like leather while being eco-friendly, cruelty-free and sustainable. 

It seems many plants and plant parts fit the bill, including pineapple leaves, cactus plants, seaweed, mushrooms, apples, grapes, corn, banana, coffee grounds, cork, seafood shells and agricultural waste. 

What is driving the demand for alternative leather products?

The rising demand for so-called vegan leather can be attributed to a range of factors.

  • Mounting consumer concerns about the impact of traditional leather on the environment
  • Increasing demand for animal-free products and rejection of  animal products
  • The rising prices of traditional leather have created a demand for more cost-effective alternatives
  • Vegan leather functions and looks just like traditional leather 

These factors play a contributing role, but the real driving force behind the rejection of real leather is the younger generation. Young consumers’ concern for the environment is the reason for their rejection of real leather and the explosion of the alternative meat market.

Research shows that nearly all (90%) of Millennials and Gen Xers think people should consume less in order to protect the planet for generations to come. That means products that do not harm the environment. They are concerned about keeping the environment safe and intact for future generations.

Animal-free leather alternatives

The fashion world is awash with innovators and startups inventing the most amazing leather alternatives. It seems just about anything organic can be used to create a leather-like material. We discuss three of them in this article, but there are many more.

  • Piñatex – pineapple leather
  • Piñatex is a leather alternative made from the fibers of pineapple leaves. This innovative material is manufactured, marketed and sold by London-based Ananas Anam. The company has subsidiaries in the Philippines and Spain.

    The pineapple farms that produce the pineapple fibers are located in the Philippines. Factories in Spain and Italy make the finished products. Piñatex is shipped worldwide from Spain.

    Piñatex is a neat all-around solution. The product is made from the waste of an existing agricultural harvest. Where pineapple farmers would previously have to get rid of the leaves by burning them, they can now earn an extra income from the pineapple waste. Because the pineapples are already grown by the farmers, Ananas Anam doesn’t have to invest in land, fertilizers or source laborers.

  • Creating of pineapple leather
  • After the pineapple harvest, the long fibers are mechanically removed, where after they are washed and dried in the sun or ovens if it's the rainy season. Then the fibers go through a process to remove impurities, making them fluffy. The fluff-like fibers then get mixed with a corn-based polylactic acid (PLA) and undergo a mechanical process that turns it into a non-woven mesh which is the basis of Piñatex.

    Ananas Anam does not sell products made from its textile. The company sells the textile itself. The website has a long list of contact details for outlets that sell products made from Piñatex. Products include clothing, shoes, bags, upholstery and more. Hugo Boss is one fashion brand that has used Piñatex to create some of its latest fashion items.

  • Mylo – mushroom leather
  • Mylo is a mushroom leather created by the textile startup, Bolt Threads using biotechnological innovation. The soft, leather-like material is made out of mycelium. Mycelia are tiny white threads that grow under the ground where they form a vast network.  

    This network of threads grows in a matter of days on any kind of substrates like wood chips or other waste materials. The resulting bed of white threads forms a material that grows naturally without the use of any chemicals and is completely biodegradable. The material can be grown to any desired thickness. 

    Mylo has attracted the attention of some big names in fashion. Stella McCartney used it to create her attention-grabbing Falabella bag and Adidas collaborated with Bolt Threads to create the Stan Smith Mylo. Joining them in a business consortium was Lululemon and Gucci's parent company Kering. The brands are all making considerable investments in Bolt Threads to boost the production of Mylo.

  • Apple leather

    Another plant-based leather that cashes in on an existing harvest is apple leather. This plant-based leather is made from the seeds, cores and peels of apples that were grown and harvested to make apple juice. 

    The Italian company named AppleSkin™ manufactures apple leather that uses apple waste, but the product is not 100% plant-based. At this stage, the pulp is still being mixed with polyester to make it strong and durable. 

    Apple leather is gaining traction already. Volkswagen has used it for the interior of its seven-seater ID. Roomzz electric SUV. Observers expect apple leather to become a popular alternative leather choice, and Volkswagen’s step seems to echo that sentiment. Apple leather manages to look luxurious and is also the choice of Paris-based brand Good Guys Don’t Wear Leather.

    However, AppleSkin™ leather is not 100% plant-based as it incorporates polyester. The manufacturers are working on incorporating recycled polyester in the near future, which will make the product more sustainable.
    For the love of sneakers. Image by PIRO4D via Pixabay

    Allbirds

    Allbirds is a sustainable fashion brand based in San Francisco.  The footwear and apparel company developed the world’s first 100% natural plant-based leather alternative.

    The company was co-founded by Joey Zwillinger and Tim Brown in 2014. Allbirds is a direct-to-consumer brand, so you won’t find their shoes in a retailer or on Amazon. Their shoes are sold online and in Allbirds’ own boutique stores. This turned out to be a smart move for the company as half the cost of creating a product goes to the retailers who sell them. Allbirds currently has 27 stores and plans to open more.

    Merino wool, eucalyptus, and sugarcane are used to create Allbirds products. Allbirds is famous for its eco-friendly shoes that are made using natural materials and sustainable practices. The company is most famous for its merino wool trainers. People like the Obamas, Oprah Winfrey and Larry Page all sport Allbirds sneakers. For extra comfort, the company has now also introduced its own sock knitted with a yarn made from eucalyptus tree pulp. 

    In the first two years, Allbirds sold more than two million pairs of its wool sneakers, which was great, but the founders realized that the sneakers did not perform so well in hot weather being created from wool fiber, so in 2018, Allbirds introduced its Tree range made from eucalyptus pulp. 

    The company doesn’t only use natural fibers to create its shoes and apparel; it also limits the carbon footprint of its manufacturing processes. The company’s commitment to the protection of the environment stretches further than its own activities. It has developed a carbon calculator that it has shared with the rest of the fashion industry to help brands calculate their carbon footprint. The company has released an open-source version of its carbon footprint calculator so other companies can use its technology.

    Allbirds also shares its products’ carbon number with consumers. For instance, the Dasher performance shoe, made from sugarcane and tree fibers is noted as having a carbon footprint of 9 kg of carbon dioxide per pair, which Allbirds says is about a third less than that of the average pair of sneakers.

    Allbirds commits to plant leather

    In February this year, Allbirds announced an investment of $2 million in materials innovation firm Natural Fiber Welding Inc. Allbirds plans to use the material to launch what it calls the world’s first “100% natural plant-based leather alternative” in December 2021.

    By incorporating Natural Fiber Welding’s products, Allbirds is aiming to reduce the environmental footprint of its leather-like material even further. Natural Fiber Welding says its material applications reduce the associated carbon footprint by 40 times and 17 times less carbon is used in its material than making synthetic leather from plastic.

    Allbirds reached unicorn status three years ago when it was valued at $1.4 billion after a Series E funding round of $100 million. The funding was led by global investment firm Franklin Templeton.

    This year, the company filed for its initial public offering (IPO). It will be listed on Nasdaq NDAQ +0.8% under the ticker BIRD. 

    Final thoughts

    Plant-based leather is an exciting development. It uses natural materials, often the waste products of existing enterprises, to create a material that is biodegradable, cruelty-free, and has a low carbon impact. It will be interesting to see what the long-term impact will be, to what extent more eco-friendly leather alternatives will replace real leather. 

     

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