Sustainable Leather Alternatives. While the use of animal skin as raw material for garments and clothes goes back to prehistoric times, modern fashion brands have to use more eco-friendly and animal-friendly alternatives as their new raw materials. The manufacturing of animal-derived leather creates enormous carbon footprints given the number of natural resources required to raise livestock. Moreover, processing leather requires toxic chemicals known to have negative health consequences to people either via skin-to-fabric contact or digestion of goods grown in polluted environments.
Finally, there is a growing trend against animal-based goods given the consumers’ increasing exposure to brands’ unethical practices making leather not only undesirable but also scarcer and more expensive. This trend impacts classic manufacturers, traditional fashion designers, and brands with well established supply chains. In the past alternatives to leather such as plastic-based textiles (made from polyurethane and called ‘pleather’) and synthetic textiles proved expensive to produce and were not entirely non-toxic or eco-friendly. Also, the material properties were not as good as leather, thus perceived by consumers ‘cheaper’ alternatives.
Sustainable Leather Alternatives – Consumers’ Expectations
According to consumers, the perfect faux-leather must come from sustainable bio-sources, produced via carbon-neutral production techniques and be at least as durable, attractive, and versatile as animal leather. Good examples of modern faux leather that have the above-mentioned attributes are made from the cellulose fibres left over from kombucha tea, pineapple foliage, mushrooms, kelp seaweed, tree bark, and more recent, lab cultures of animal cells.
Obtained from sustainable sources of natural raw material, faux-leathers beat traditional leather production methods in terms of sustainability. Also, with the exception of lab-grown leather, these materials are produced via non-toxic processes and are biodegradable when composted. More important, these materials provide the quality and durability consumers expect from real leather garments and accessories.
1. Pinatex – Sustainable Leather Alternatives
This Spanish company that produces leather alternatives from pineapple leaves, which are the remainder of the plant that is discarded as organic waste by pineapple farmers. During a process called decortication, the fibres that later become faux leather are extracted. The byproduct of this process can be used as a fertilizer or converted into biogas through fermentation, while the non-woven pre-leather is then finished into a sewable leather-like textile. Pinatex creator and founder Dr Carmen Hijosa is the winner of InnovateUK’s Women in Innovation Awards in 2016.
2. MycoWorks – Sustainable Leather Alternatives
MycoWorks grows a leather-like material from mushrooms. Mycelium, the vegetative part of fungi consisting of a network of fine filaments, or hyphae, is used to produce a highly versatile and durable leather alternative. Mycelium can easily thrive on agricultural waste, such as sawdust or nut shells.
It is the safest fungus to use for this purpose, and it is the mushroom most commonly used as food. As the mycelium network grows, natural polymers are formed to create a durable sheet similar to leather. MycoWorks can control many aspects of the growing conditions to create a faux leather of any shape, thickness, or size. The mycelium can also be manipulated with organic compounds to result in various textures.
3. MuSkin – Sustainable Leather Alternatives
The Italian company, Grado Zero Espace developed another type of mushroom-based faux leather called MuSkin which is commercially available via Life Materials’ online shop. MuSkin is produced from the caps of mushrooms of the species of fungus called Phellinus Ellipsoideus, a specimen of which happens to be the largest fungal fruit body ever recorded. These fungi naturally grow in subtropical forests, parasitically feeding on trees.
Like MycoWorks’ mycelium leather, MuSkin is naturally water-repellent but less versatile in terms of texture (MuSkin has a soft suede-like texture). The non-toxic production techniques used by MycoWorks and MuSkin to make mushroom leather make the material ideal for goods such as clothing, jewellery, or upholstery that may frequently come in direct contact with the consumer’s skin.
MuSkin is more breathable than animal leather and limits the proliferation of bacteria. The mushroom leather is an eco-friendly, sustainable, and cost-competitive choice, as it takes just a fraction of the time and resources to produce compared to traditional leather made from animal hides.
4. SeaCell – Sustainable Leather Alternatives
SeaCell is one brand of “ocean leather,” developed by Nanonic Inc. To make it, kelp seaweed is mixed with cellulose (Tencel and Algae fibres) to produce a material that looks and feels like leather. Since kelp is such an abundant and sustainable resource, ocean leather is an ecologically sound choice, and may even offer health benefits due to the vitamin E and other nutrients found in kelp that can be absorbed by the wearer’s skin.
Another product made by Nanoinc is the ‘Cork leather’ obtained from the bark of cork oak trees. This type of leather is increasingly popular with a large number of manufacturers and suppliers opening doors in 2017. The production of cork leather is sustainable since harvesting slices of a cork oak tree does not require the tree to be cut down. In fact, the bark grows back within a few years, and when the bark slices are harvested roughly every nine years, this process actually prolongs the life of the tree.
5. Lab-grown – Sustainable Leather Alternatives
Modern Meadow, Inc. has developed perhaps the most exciting innovation in animal-free leather manufacturing: lab-grown leather. A process called fabrication has been developed by the corporation in which living cells are used and engineered to produce collagen. The sheets of collagen, the same protein found in the skin of animals, are then finished utilizing a simplified process of tanning, transforming the raw synthetic skin into leather that uses fewer chemicals than traditional tanning.
The material can be fine-tuned in terms of shape, size, thickness, colour, and even pattern. Because the size and shape are determined by design, none of the leather goes to waste. These newer leather alternatives are ecologically sound, sustainable, and humane, and as commercialization scales up even further, driving costs down, even more, traditional animal hide leather may one day become a thing of the past.