Here, we ask Yvonne Taylor, Director of Corporate Projects at PETA, to tell us all about the natural leather alternatives we’ll be wearing in the future.
Get this: apparently, apple, cork, wine and kombucha leather alternatives exist. Who knew?
From apples to wine grapes, the innovative materials that will replace animal leather
As the environmental crisis prompts consumers to question the production methods behind their clothing, vegan leather is gaining traction – and for good reason. Leather production is a major contributor to the depletion of water, fossil fuels, and pastureland, and it also exacerbates climate change as a consequence of the methane gas emissions caused by animal agriculture.
Like fur, leather must be loaded with toxic chemicals to keep it from decomposing on the wearer’s back or feet. Mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, cyanide-based dyes, and other dangerous substances are routinely used during the tanning process. An estimated 90% of leather workers – many of whom are children – in Bangladesh, the top leather producer, die before the age of 50 as a result of exposure to these chemicals. This is one of the reasons why the 2017 “Pulse of the Fashion Industry” report ranked cow leather at the top of its list of the materials with the highest cradle-to-gate environmental impact.
Luxury fashion giant Kering, owner of Alexander McQueen and Saint Laurent, established in its 2017 “Environmental Profit Loss” report that cow leather was the most polluting of all materials analysed – and that an astonishing 93% of the environmental damage occurs before the skins arrive at the tannery. Consequently, measures such as vegetable tanning don’t come close to solving its pollution issue.
Over 1 billion animals are killed for leather every year. The vast majority are raised on filthy, crowded factory farms, and many are subjected to horrific mutilations – workers may clip or grind down their teeth and cut off their tails or testicles without any painkillers. Females are repeatedly impregnated via artificial insemination, and their terrified babies are torn away from them shortly after birth. At the abattoir, their throats are often cut while they’re still conscious and able to feel pain.
But we can get the look of leather without killing animals or putting serious strain on the planet, simply by choosing from the many natural, sustainable vegan alternatives that are currently disrupting the market.
This biodegradable and non-toxic material is derived from dehydrated apple cores, seeds, and peel. It’s currently used in bags by Polish brand Alexandra K as well as shoes by Italian label Nemanti and jackets and dresses by French company Poétique Paris.
Cork is a natural, biodegradable material that’s produced predominantly in Portugal, home to many cork oak trees. One of the best things about cork is that it can be harvested without having to cut down the tree – and it grows back, making it a renewable resource. Check out the cork bags made by Corkor and Nina Bernice, among others.
One of this year’s H&M Foundation Global Change Awards went to Le Qara, a Peruvian company using fruit and flowers to produce a biodegradable vegan leather in a biotech laboratory. This material can be adapted to mimic the many different textures, thicknesses, and shades of animal leather – and the waste generated during the manufacturing process can even be used as a liquid compost.
You might already be a fan of kombucha tea, and a by-product of the drink can be used to make a 100% biodegradable vegan leather. By fermenting the tea with sugar and vinegar, using a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY, cellulose fibres develop, and they can be crafted into a leather-like material – with no animals harmed.
Perhaps the most exciting innovation in this field is laboratory-grown leather, courtesy of US brand Modern Meadow. By bioengineering a strain of yeast, the company produces collagen cells, which it grows via fermentation to replicate actual animal skin. It’s possible to create as much or as little material as needed, in a form that fits the specific criteria of each design. Biofabricated leather looks and feels exactly like animal skin – but with none of the cruelty or environmental damage of animal agriculture.
Several companies are producing leather made from mushrooms – including US-based material innovation company Bolt Threads, which has created the bioengineered material Mylo, as well as MycoWorks and MuSkin. These brands are using mycelium – the root structure of fungi – to create sustainable, water-resistant, biodegradable materials that don’t require any of the toxic chemicals used in leather tanning. Bolt Threads has already launched a Mylo tote bag.
Piñatex (Pineapple Leather)
A natural, recyclable, and biodegradable vegan leather, Piñatex was invented by former leather worker Dr Carmen Hijosa of Brazilian company Ananas Anam. It’s made from waste pineapple leaves, providing farmers with an additional income stream. Brands using the material in their designs include Bourgeois Boheme and Po-Zu.
These days, wine grapes don’t just end up in a bottle of red or white – they can also be used to make clothing and accessories. Vegea, an Italian brand that won a 2017 H&M Foundation Global Change Award, is creating luxurious leather using waste materials – such as skins, seeds, and stalks – from the wine industry.
Let’s drink to that!