Sustainable Vegan Leather Guide
The ongoing debate of which vegan leather alternatives are the most sustainable is, well, ongoing.
We all understand at this point that traditional leather, usually made from cowhide, isn’t necessarily a debate around sustainability but about ethics (although leather is also very unsustainable). We all feel better when our products and foods are cruelty-free. But, when deciding which vegan leather alternative to choose, we have to consider the production process and lifespan of the product before making a buying decision that aligns with our values.
Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a rise in the vegan leather trend where products have been mostly made from polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). But, at the end of the day, we need to remember these are still plastics.
Now, before we jump into learning about 5 amazing vegan leather alternatives, let me break down what the heck PU and PVC “vegan” leather products are made of and how they are made.
What is Polyurethane (PU) & Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)?
Polyurethane (PU) is a thermoplastic polymer mostly used in the making of shoes and furniture. For a while we’ve been seeing PU as the standard for vegan leather handbags and accessories because of its foam-like texture, and ability to look and feel like a natural leather.
PU is a plastic product that has been linked to health issues and irritation specifically to the skin and lungs (and unfortunately, PU is everywhere – usually found in your walls, your mattresses, and objects that you can’t avoid in your own home). This is why we’re raising eyebrows around the continued use of PU, especially for products where alternatives are available, as we need to consider how ethical this material is not for just ourselves, but also our beloved mama earth.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a little bit more of a bad boy. Derived from chlorine, carbon, and ethylene (three horrible chemicals that are not at all eco-friendly), PVC is actually one of the most toxic plastics we have within our homes (and can even be found in children’s toys)! However, the plastic is extremely durable and used in a wide array of products so it doesn’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon.
When it comes to using PU and PVC in vegan leather products, we need to weigh the pros and cons.
The pros of PU and PVC:
- PU and PVC vegan leather products come in tons of vibrant color options since the polymers used hold color much better than other vegan leather alternatives.
- PU and PVC are waterproof, therefore super easy to clean!
- PU and PVC use far less resources than what is needed to produce real leather (for the material production, synthetic leather has 1/3 the impact of cow leather according to the 2017 Pulse Report)
However, the cons of PU and PVC include:
- Neither PU or PVC are biodegradable or eco-friendly. PU consists of petroleum products, and PVC is made from ethylene gas from natural gas or petroleum (and as a result, these materials can be quite smelly).
- You need to take special care of your PU and PVC accessories as they are prone to crack and tear easily (and can be impossible to mend!).
- On the aesthetic front, PU and PVC can look quite synthetic. If you’re going to go with a PU or PVC vegan leather product, I would recommend sticking to neutral shades, vibrant colors will be more prone to wear and tear.
No shame or guilt if you already own a PU or PVC vegan leather product – the more you know, the better buying decisions you can make.
The good news is you don’t have to resort to only plastic to practice vegan fashion. That’s why we’re going to introduce you to our favorite 5 vegan leather alternatives that will align with your values of cruelty-free, sustainable, and ethical made fashion.
Cork and Cork Leather
I love cork. I’ve owned cork shoes, handbags, and coasters (duh Jazzmine, we all have!).
Cork is a renewable, raw material that comes from Quercus Suber, cork oak trees (didn’t know that, did ya?!). It’s found along the Mediterranean, with most production coming from Portugal, and northwest Africa.
The Quercus Suber is an incredible tree as well, as it can thrive in just about any drought and doesn’t put much pressure on the native soil.
Cork is extracted from the middle of the bark of the Quercus Suber tree and continues to grow back and blossom for years to come, reducing any threat to deforestation.
The pros of cork leather:
- Cork harvesting is one of the most sustainable agricultural practices as you never ever have to cut the tree down, and its bark continues to grow back promptly and ready for use. Cork oak trees also provide homes to hundreds of rare species (and the demand for cork keeps cork forests growing!).
- Cork is water resistant, extremely light, and super soft – you could literally make a pillow out of it (if you wanted to)!
- Cork can be recycled and upcycled, making it one of the most sustainable and circular materials available to the fashion industry.
The cons of cork leather:
- Unfortunately, cork products are often accompanied by a PU lining or backing when used for handbags and accessories. The sucky part is brands aren’t always transparent about this, so you’ll want to ask the hard questions before you buy.
- There really aren’t many cons to this super sustainable material, but if you’re looking for an array of colors, you ain’t going to find it with your cork products. If you’re all about neutrals, cork is for you!
This incredibly innovative and relatively new material is made from pineapple leaves. Piñatex was trademarked by Carmen Hijosa under her company Ananas Anam after seeing firsthand the horrifying environmental impacts of the leather industry on the Philippines. She was destined to find an alternative solution. The result: an opportunity to provide year-round employment to pineapple farmers, decrease agricultural waste, and offer the fashion industry a sustainable textile.
Not-so-fun fact: The Phillipines sees around 76 million tons of waste come from pineapple production. Piñatex is helping solve this food waste atrocity.
The process of creating Piñatex includes extracting fiber from pineapple leaves, sun-drying the fibres, and mixing the remaining fluffy material with a corn-based polylactic acid (PLA).
If you haven’t seen Piñatex fabric or had the chance to feel its incredible textile, I’m sure just by picturing pineapples you can imagine how smooth and leather-like the textile becomes after processing (making it a perfect vegan leather alternative!).
The pros of Piñatex leather:
- The base material of Piñatex is pineapple leaves, a by-product of pineapple harvesting. Utilizing Piñatex in vegan leather products helps minimize food waste, and maximize profits for farmers by promoting circularity in agricultural development.
- Piñatex takes color really well, making it a super fun textile to play with.
- Honestly, it’s a pretty dope fabric and looks fabulous, from handbags to shoes to jackets.
The cons of Piñatex leather:
- Unfortunately, to improve durability, Piñatex is coated with a PU resin.
- Piñatex is prone to fading over time and can be damaged quite easily (mostly due to its lack of chemical protection), so you’ll want to take good care of your Piñatex products.
- It has a very distinct look and texture which some might not like.
Apple pie, apple tarts, apple crisp, and now, apple leather. Apples continually give us sweet goodness, and now it’s bringing us a sustainable, vegan leather alternative.
The innovator behind apple leather is Alberto Vocan, a Milan-based engineer on a mission to reduce food waste and increase the sustainability of textile production.
So, how the heck do you make apple leather?
Remember those terribly addictive, sugary fruit leather rolls you would eat as a lunch time snack in elementary school? Basically like that, instead apple leather for commercial use uses the apple peels and cores (yes, food waste!). After pureeing the apple waste, the mushy pulp is spread onto a sheet and dehydrated until all moisture is removed. After dehydrating the apple puree, you are left with a fine, leathery sheet.
The pros of apple leather:
- Versatile and can be made in a variety of colours, looks, and textures.
- The base fibre of apple leather is made entirely of food waste.
- Apple leather is extremely durable, as in that new apple leather wallet will never look like you actually used it (!).
The cons of apple leather:
- You’ll still find PU and PVC used in the binding of most apple leather products.
Just by looking at cacti you can instantly tell that this favorite (and easy to care for) desert friend would make an incredible vegan leather alternative.
Cactus leather is relatively new, brought to market in 2019 by Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez. Currently they are the only producers of cactus leather, grown and processed at their plantation in Mexico under the name Desserto.
Similar to our Piñatex and apple leather processes, cactus leather is processed by taking the mature leaves of the cacti plant, mashing them up, and giving them some good time to dry out under the beautiful Mexican sun. The Desserto team uses natural dyes to transform the color of their cactus leather textiles, making the finished product another eco-friendly and vegan alternative to leather.
The pros of cactus leather:
- No fertilizers or chemicals are needed in the agricultural production of cactus, nor in the finishing of the material, making it one of the only certified organic vegan alternatives to leather.
- Believe it or not, it’s soft!
- Surprisingly it’s pretty easy to dye, therefore you don’t have to love the color green to sport cactus leather fashion.
The cons of cactus leather:
- Cactus leather is currently only available for larger fashion brands due to the minimum order requirements. Although not really a con, it will take a few years before cactus leather becomes more accessible for conscious consumers.
- Most of the reporting on Desserto calls it “partially biodegradable” but because of the proprietary nature there doesn’t seem to be further information about why this is.
To me, there is nothing more magical and intricate than the working of mycelium. The way fungus lives under our soil and continues to thrive and provide nutrients to just about every living orgasm is absolutely mindblowing.
Mycelium can be grown in just about anything, from saw dust to agricultural waste. Not only is it an essential element of our ecosystems, it’s becoming an essential component to address our need for a sustainable textile and vegan leather alternative.
MycoWorks was founded in 2013 by Philip Ross and Sophia Wang, the house that would bring Reishi to market, the world’s first mycelium textile in collaboration with Matt Scullin who is the current CEO.
Mylo is another mycelium leather developed in 2018 by Bolt Threads in the Netherlands.
Mushroom leather is an organic textile made from mushroom spores and fibers. It can be used as a vegan leather alternative, or grown over the shape of another object to create whatever item you’d like (such as a lampshade!).
The pros of mushroom leather:
- Some mushroom leather options can be biodegradable and compostable.
- Mushroom leather is light-weight, flexible, and versatile for multiple fashion, accessory, and traditionally leather products.
- Mushroom leather does not need to be treated, therefore production does not harm our beautiful mama earth in any way.
The cons of mushroom leather:
- Mycelium needs a lot of water to grow. Although there is currently no sourced information about the impacts with large scale production, I’m sure we’re soon to find out as the alternative becomes more mainstream across the industry.
- There is no further information about additives or finishes with mushroom leather. Mylo for example just states, it’s “certified bio-based”. Others are also experimenting with mushroom leathers, however, with such a new textile we have much to learn.
So, what’s your new go-to vegan leather alternative?
I know my favorite will always be cork, however as a zero waster, my heart is so warmed to know that innovators are taking on food waste-based fibres for textile creation. You can expect very similar processing, pros, and cons from just about any agricultural-driven vegan leather alternative, from mango leather to banana leather.
Share with us below what you currently own, how you’re feeling about these alternatives, and of course, let us know if you have any questions. The fashion industry is in the midst of a very exciting time for exploration and innovation. As we continue to weave together our love for style and our love for humans, animals, and the planet, we will continue to transform the industry into a circular, sustainable space.