Leather shoes made from pineapple? Wallets made from apples? It’s 2020 friends, ripping the skin off an animal’s back isn’t the only way to make shoes and bags. Sustainable and cruelty-free alternatives to leather, and innovative biomaterials are revolutionising fashion.
Long gone are the days when your only vegan footwear option was a pair of Converse canvas hi-tops waterproofed with gaffer tape for the wet season, or stiff plasticky clogs that left your feet schvitzy and blistered in summer heat. Nowadays there’s a world of cruelty free leather shoe, bag and apparel alternatives, with many more textile innovations in the pipeline.
But leather alternatives are not just those who are concerned about animal welfare. Leather production also raises serious environmental concerns. The 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report found cow leather to be the most polluting material used for clothing ranking above synthetic leathers and even polyester. This is due to the impact of cows on the land, including the emissions of greenhouse gases, contamination of surrounding bodies of water, and depletion of natural resources faster than they can be replenished. In fact, leather was found to still have the worst environmental impact, more than twice that of PU (polyurethane-based plastic) leather.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Materials Sustainability Index —which measures impact up to the point of fabrication — gives most leathers an impact of 159, compared with 44 for polyester and 98 for cotton, due to its high contribution to global warming and water use and pollution. It’s not just agricultural impact that is concerning. Yes, leather is a product natural in origin, but the chemical process leather undergoes for tanning and treatment renders it an environmental pollutant. Afterall, if leather (or fur) was really natural, it would decompose in your wardrobe. Many tanners use chromium, and in regions where leather production is popular but environmental-protection standards are not — like China, India, and Bangladesh — the chromium and other tanning chemicals often get dumped as liquid, sludge, or solid waste. As a result of all of this chemical treatment, leather takes about 40-50 years to biodegrade.
Then there is the massive and impact on human health. As most leather production occurs in developing countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, it is out of sight out of mind for most western consumers and fashion brands. Leather raises many ethical concerns, from animal welfare to human rights. Most leather workers are not protected by any health and safety legislation or basic worker’s rights and they are usually paid below a minimum living wage; and child labour is common. In addition, they face severe health risks from constant exposure to toxins in completely unregulated conditions.
Vegans have for decades had to rely on synthetic alternatives to leather, however most vegan leather goods are fossil fuel-derived, made from plastic, either PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or PU (polyurethane), which both contain toxic chemicals, phthalates, and traces of bisphenol A. PU is by no means a perfect solution, however, surprisingly it still has a much lower average carbon footprint than leather with just 16kgs of CO2 per square meter, and it is better for animal welfare. But, at the end of the day they are still fossil fuel derived and it has a big problem once it comes to disposability. What do you do with your PU items once they are no longer wearable? Unfortunately, once these items are discarded they end up in landfills which poses an environmental problem.
Many argue that the most sustainable option is to use pre-existing vintage and upcycled leather, but if you’re vegan this is really not an option. And choosing between petroleum-derived PU leather and real leather pits questions of animal suffering against questions of sustainability. Why should we choose between one or the other? We can do better. Fortunately, today there are an ever growing number of companies and brands leading by example and creating more sustainable vegan solutions with biotextiles crafted from natural, eco-friendly resources that are neither animal nor petroleum based, such as pineapples, cork, apples and lab grown materials. They’re not creating a demand for resources or extracting more from the planet, but rather using up what would have otherwise been thrown away.
The emergence of a bioeconomy has stepped in to address and solve fashion’s sustainability, pollution and ethics problem. The bioeconomy entails working with natural bioprocesses, upcycling bio-waste into new materials as well as developing synthetic biological biofabrication to deliver sustainable solutions. Finding new biosolutions can even help us shift from our current dependence on non-renewable oil and toxic chemical processes required for polyester, as well as animal agriculture, which has a devastating toll on our natural resources and the climate crisis.
Most of these new innovations are developed by start-ups based on circular model, emphasising renewability, climate-friendliness and biodegradability of cellulose-based materials make them an attractive alternative to traditional animal-based materials or agriculturally grown materials such as cotton and leather. They require fewer resources and offer sustainable and cruelty-free alternatives to leather and silk, and help shape a more circular textile industry.
You shouldn’t have to choose between animal welfare and sustainability. The two need not—and should not—be mutually exclusive. Take a look at these 12 plant based, cruelty-free, waste-reducing and innovative materials revolutionising the fashion industry.
Piñatex turns unwanted pineapple leaves into a dark, leather-like fabric. It is 85–90 percent biodegradable (it’s coated with a petroleum-based resin added to meet durability requirements of the fashion industry, and the company says it is working on finding a bio-based coating) and turns an otherwise wasted byproduct of the agriculture industry into a fabric. The use of this by-product creates an additional income stream for the farming cooperatives in the Philippines with which the company directly works. The residual leaf biomass is also used as a natural fertiliser/ biofuel, this closing the production loop. H&M’s latest Conscious collection, a sustainably-minded capsule, makes use of Piñatex, as does Hugo Boss, and Humans are Vain.
Appleskin by Frumat
This leather alternative is made from the skin and core of apple waste recovered from the food industry. Created in Italy, Appleskin is composed of 50% apple fibre, while the remaining is PU coating, so it’s not entirely biodegradable, yet. Appleskin is used for the production of clothes, shoes, luggage, accessories and leather goods, as well as furnishing.
This partially biodegradable vegan ‘leather’ is made from the leaves of the nopal cactus which is part of Mexico’s natural vegetation. Cultivation process is minimally resource intensive requiring only natural rainwater. The product, which is soft to the touch, is flexible, breathable, and lasts for around ten years. It can be employed in handbags, shoes, and anything else for which you would normally use leather.
The most ancient textile of mankind and UNESCO World Cultural heritage, Barktex is permanently renewable bark fleece from the East African Mutuba fig tree. It can be harvested every year without felling the tree and is manufactured in low-energy, partly CO2-emission-free-processes. The textile can be used on shoes and furnishing.
Patented and manufactured by Italian based company Orange Fiber is the first sustainable fabric from citrus juice by-products. More than 700,000 tonnes of citrus by-product are created and disposed of every year in Italy. Orange Fiber has developed a silk-like cellulose yarn that can be blended with other materials to create orange twill, poplin, jersey and more. The process extracts the citrus cellulose from these leftover orange peels and spins it into lightweight twill, poplin or jersey .
Created by Modern Meadow, Zoa is the first biofabricated materials brand designed with collagen protein as a core building block. This is the protein that makes skin well, skin, so it looks, feels, and wears much closer to real leather. It can withstand any density, shape, texture and is highly adaptable into various uses. The company is still in research and development, but they’re working with some global brands to bring products to the market very soon.
Mycelium is the branching underground structure of mushrooms. Bolt Threads developed Mylo from mycelium cells by engineering it to assemble into a supple yet durable material that has the potential to biodegrade and can replace real and synthetic leather. The material, otherwise known as mushroom leather, can be produced in days versus years, through a process that minimizes environmental impact, with the ability to biodegrade. Cells are grown on a bed of agricultural waste and byproducts. The finished product was launched with a Stella McCartney handbag prototype in 2018.
Lab grown and engineered Microsilk is a spider-inspired vegan, protein-based silk thread grown by bacteria. The microbial weaving process creates web like silk fibres with similar properties to original spider thread including high tensile strength, elasticity, durability, and softness. Without the use of polyester and toxic processes, this spider silk is renewable and completely sustainable with the potential to biodegrade at the end of its useful life. The material has already been employed in designs by Stella McCartney, Adidas and North Face.
PHOOL started out collecting flower waste generated in temples and thrown in rivers and turning it into charcoal free incense and biodegradable packaging material. Now they have invested themselves in faux leather. Fleather is 100 percent biodegradable and the fabric’s fibrous material mimics leather’s elasticity and tensile strength. Although the material is not yet commercially available, Fleather will be used to make handbags, shoes, and apparel.
From Austrian company Lenzing, Tencel is a light and versatile fabric made by Lyocell (rayon), a cellulose fibre developed by dissolving wood pulp which is sourced from sustainably-managed eucalyptus plantations. It's soft on the skin and smooth to the touch, and the versatile material can be employed in everything from intimates, activewear and denim to footwear. The Refibra technology employed in the Tencel production is a closed loop process which involves upcycling a substantial proportion of cotton scraps from garment production. Tencel is used by brands such as Organic Basics, Ninety Percent, H&M and KitX.
Reishi is a new material fabricated from “fine mycelium,” a fungus-grown material that looks, feels, and even smells like leather. The versatile material is lab-grown in trays on plant biomass, in dark, mild temperatures, which reduces the factory’s energy cost. It can be tanned without chrome, dyed, embossed and hand-stitched, just like animal leather. It even has a strength and abrasion resistance similar to or surpassing leather. It can be grown into any shape or form, reducing waste in fabrication and enhancing speed to market, associated with cutting a hide.
Made from nylon waste such as fishing nets and carpets recovered from the ocean or landfill, Econyl yarn can be endlessly recycled without ever losing its quality. No virgin material is used, so it’s a sustainable way to create products from waste in a continuous loop. So far it has been used by brands in eyewear, bags, carpets and apparel from swimwear, hosiery and ready-to-wear.