The leather industry is rife with problems, ranging from carbon footprint and environmental pollution to workers’ health concerns and animal welfare. The fashion industry has been looking urgently for alternatives to the centuries-long practice of tanning hides for sturdy textiles. The trend toward innovative plant-based leather is upon us, thankfully, with cruelty-free, climate-friendly, and low-impact solutions emerging as viable market options. Plant-based leather products are attractive and supple, surprisingly familiar in feel and appearance, and contribute to the circular economy.
In the resource-constrained world in which we live, renewable and sustainable alternatives to leather are coming into vogue. Is it time for you to unleather the products you use every day?
Data from Grand View Research shows that the plant-based leather market is set to be worth $85 billion globally by 2025 as more consumers grow aware of the ethical and environmental impact of the leather industry. Companies like Tesla and Volvo are ahead of many manufacturers in their switch from animal hides to plant-based leather.
The Problem with Leather
Leather production is linked to serious sustainability issues, linked unalterably as a byproduct of the meat industry and connected as well to deforestation, water and land overuse, and greenhouse gas emissions, all of which are contributing to the climate crisis. According to the EPA, 70% of the water pollution in the US comes from factory farms. Additionally, leather’s severe impact on eutrophication occurs because the wastewater often flows untreated to local waterways.
Not sure how much the leather industry actually contributes to environmental degradation? Here’s a tool that can help.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition — a non-profit alliance for the fashion industry that assesses environmental and social labor impacts across the value chain — has developed the Higg Materials Sustainability Index. It measures production impact up to the point of fabrication.
Most leathers have an impact rate of 159 — for comparison sake, polyester has 44, and cotton has 98.
While leather production has many environmental triggers, tanning is the most toxic phase of leather processing. Hides are immersed in drums of water, chromium salts, and tanning liquor to halt decomposition and infuse a pliant, color-fast texture. The chromium process produces a slush of chemicals and gases, including carcinogenic chromium. This is so noxious that strict regulations governing it have forced the closure of tanneries in the US and Europe.
Tannery workers can include very young children in some parts of the world, and all tannery workers become exposed to toxic substances. Chronic worker health issues that affect sinuses, mouth, eyes, skins, digestion, kidneys, liver, and other parts of the body are common.
Is synthetic leather any better? Not much. Synthetic vegan leather is made from petroleum-based plastics like polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride, which are created from petroleum or natural gas. We know that extracting fossil fuels has multiple associated environmental and human costs, including drilling, pumping, transporting, and processing.
Instead of animal hides or oil, it’s time to switch to renewable resources and natural waste for the sturdiest and most alluring textiles. Moreover, it is no longer acceptable to take plant-based fibers and embed them in plastic, which results in the low-quality material called “pleather.”
Instead, let’s look to the industry standard for plant-based leather, which is 100% bio-based. Vegan materials can originate from a wide variety of biomass, such as grape skins, mushrooms, pineapples, corn, bananas, apples, cacti, green tea, coffee grounds, and even coconut water. Many examples are already out on the market and savored by high end fashion houses.
Mushroom Fibers for Plant-Based Leather
Threads from the root structures of fungi, called mycelium, have sparked a mushroom leather movement. This complex latticework of underground fibers is quite strong due to its special cultivation. Bred quickly and efficiently in different shapes, sizes, and widths, its production time is short compared to traditional leather.
Mycelium leather been created by the scientists and engineers at Bolt Threads. Recognizing that textile manufacturing is one of the most polluting industries on the planet, Bolt makes materials to benefit people and the environment. By re-engineering the process from inputs through the end of life, Bolt aims to reduce the long-term environmental impact of their materials and to create a better world.
A true example of the circular economy at work, the corn cobs, wood chips, and straw byproducts of mushroom leather manufacturing can be mixed with mushroom spawn to grow more mycelium, and other waste products generated can be reused as an organic crop fertilizer or for beekeeper’s smoke.
Plant-Based Leather from Virgin & Recycled Fiber
MIRUM is a plant-based composite material made from both virgin and recycled plant fiber. Natural Fiber Welding (NFW) founder Luke Haverhals explains, “MIRUM has the lowest resource and carbon footprint and the lowest ecological impact in its category. It’s unique in that it uses zero plastic: no PU, no PVC, no EVA, no petrochemicals.”
While many plant-based leathers are made with an intensive chemical processes, MIRUM is produced through mechanical compression. And instead of relying on PU coatings, NFW has developed patented techniques to create the luxury look and feel that people have come to expect. Whenever possible, NFW sources byproducts, like cork powder or coconut husks, from existing agricultural industries to further minimize MIRUM’s ecological impact.
At the end of a product’s life, MIRUM can be recycled into new MIRUM. Even scraps of MIRUM from the cutting process can become feedstock for the next batch of MIRUM production.
Pineapple Leaf Fiber
The use of pineapple leaf fiber, an agricultural waste product, provides the opportunity to build a scalable commercial industry for developing farming communities with minimal environmental impact. “Design is a connecting tool among people, economics, and the environment,” muses Dr. Carmen Hijosa, the originator of Piñatex.® “Out of this communion, understanding, and respect, new ideas and products with integrity can come about.”
Piñatex® ﬁber starts as a byproduct of the existing pineapple harvest, so the raw material requires no additional environmental resources to produce. Post-harvest, the suitable plant leaves which are left behind are collected in bundles, and the long fibers are extracted using semi-automatic machines. The fibers are washed and then dried naturally by the sun, or during the rainy season, in drying ovens. The dry fibers go through a purification process to remove any impurities, which results in a fluff-like material. This fluff-like pineapple leaf fiber gets mixed with a corn-based polylactic acid and undergoes a mechanical process to create Piñafelt, a non-woven mesh.
In making Piñatex, 264 Co2 tons were saved — the burning of which would release the equivalent of 264 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
The rolls of Piñafelt are shipped by boat from the Philippines to Spain or Italy for specialized finishing. The plant-based leather has been used by over 1000 brands worldwide, including Hugo Boss, H&M, and the Hilton Hotel Bankside.
With the purpose of creating an alternative to animal leather, Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez, both hailing from Mexico, developed a vegan alternative to leather made with Nopal cactus. After two years of research and development, the creators brought marketable cactus-based material in October, 2019 to showcase as an alternative to leather in Milan, Italy.
Desserto® has features that exceed the quality of animal or synthetic leather, such as sustainability, performance, and aesthetics. The world’s first highly sustainable and environmentally friendly organic material made of Nopal cactus, also known as the prickly pear, is called Desserto®. Produced in a large variety of colors, thicknesses, and textures, the process begins on a perennial cactus plantation that matches native biodiversity and blends with wild flora. Desserto® has features that exceed animal or synthetic leather, such as sustainability, performance, and aesthetics. As it is fully organic, the cactus crop enhances biodiversity through natural techniques that stimulate the micro-flora and micro-fauna in the ground.
** Do you have a favorite plant-based leather product? If so, tell us all about it!
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