Plant based leather - the eco-friendly alternative hitting the catwalks

Vegan leather isn’t only an ecofriendly alternative, which isn’t made from animals. It’s also being featured on the catwalk with fashion brands like Stella McCartney and Hermes using these materials in their collections. 

While having long lifetimes, leather goods come with a considerable carbon footprint. Raising livestock for leather releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases. In fact, the production of a pair of cow-skin leather shoes contributes over 40 kg of carbon emissions from the hide alone, nearly seven times that of an equivalent polyurethane synthetic alternative.

Most synthetic leathers, while avoiding materials derived from animals, rely on petrochemical products such as polyvinyl chloride and polyurethane. These materials do lead to lower emissions compared to cow-hide leather. However, vegan leather is notoriously fragile and difficult to care for. Wear and tear will often destine a faux-leather item for landfill in just a few years. There may also be issues associated with the production of these materials, such as the use of harmful solvents for example dimethyl formamide (DMF) in the manufacturing process. In addition, it is difficult to recycle these materials at the end of their lives because they often consist of complex mixtures of polymers, meaning that they eventually end up contributing to the almost 2 million tonnes of textile waste produced every year.

Enter plant-based leather. These materials are made from renewable plant-based feedstocks, which mean that they don’t require large amounts of petrochemical materials in their production. There are a number of innovators (some of whom we work with as a firm), who are looking to produce leather alternatives that reduce the reliance on petrochemicals, and produce biodegradable alternatives.

Toray has been a key player in the artificial leather space for over 50 years. Introduced in 1970, Ultrasuede® is made of ultra-fine PET fibres layered on a durable backing. This results in a material that is lighter and more uniform than leather while providing a soft suede-like texture, ideal for replacing animal leather in fashion items and interiors. 

In 2015, Toray began producing Ultrasuede using PET with 30% plant-based starting materials. With sights set on 100%, Toray has recently developed entirely plant-based PET using ethylene glycol from molasses and dimethyl terephthalate from corn starch. The durable backing is now made using recycled materials and partly plant-based polyurethanes and polyesters.

Leather products can also be made with a wide variety of waste materials, reducing the reliance on petroleum derived polymers. The company Vegea uses waste products from the wine industry in the manufacture of polyurethane leather, using grape seed oil in polyurethane production and including reinforcing fibres derived from grape skins and stalks. Ananas Anam’s Piñatex® uses discarded pineapple leaves to produce a durable base layer, which then only needs a thin coating of polymer to produce a leather replacement. Not only does Piñatex offer an environmentally friendly alternative to leather, but its production also provides an additional income stream to pineapple farming communities.

Although, these plant-plastic hybrids are a step in the right direction, they can cause difficulties at their end of life. Because they are a composite of plant-based materials and plastic they can be difficult to recycle and because they contain plastics, they are not compostable. Fortunately, a range of innovators are looking into this issue and developing fully plant based artificial leather materials, which are biodegradable.  

Ecovative has developed Forager™ hides, which are fully biodegradable and made with entirely natural, renewable materials. This leather replacement is made from 100% mycelium (the ‘roots’ of mushrooms), without any oil-derived products, fillers or plastics. Grown in just 9 days, the mycelium hides can be tanned and finished just like regular leather.

Another company working in this space are Cambond, who have used their expertise in resin technology to develop leather replacements from a number of different waste streams. At the high-end Cambond have developed “Beer Leather” made from beer waste sludge, which has been used to make belts and dog collars. They have also produced hemp-based “leather”, which is glossy to the touch and is envisaged for usage in car interiors. Cambond have even made “leathers” from carrots and tomatoes which retain the bright colours of their vegetable feedstocks. Amazingly, the carrot based “leather” is even biodegradable at the end of its useful lifespan.

It’s now possible to buy vegan alternatives to most leather products, ranging from vegan leather jackets (available at Zara) to high end Nordstrom handbags. However, from a sustainability perspective it is important to be discerning in which products we buy, with an eye on 100% plant-based materials, which will biodegrade at the end of their wearable lifetime.