Is there a real sustainable vegetable leather?14.06.2022
It is time to discover vegan leather! What’s it made of? How does it feel? Is it sustainable? In this deep dive, I will answer these questions and many more. Let’s get to it!
What is VEGAN LEATHER?
The term vegan leather can be used to describe any leather-like textile. This phrase has seen steady growth in popularity over the past decade and is a reflection of the rise in veganism and vegan fashion.
The popularity of vegan leather has increased, and so has greenwashing. There are many vegan leathers that are more durable than leather. However, there are also some bad examples. I’ll get into those in a moment. It’s important to remember that vegan leather can refer to many things and can also be misleading.
What is VEGAN LEATHER MADE OF?
For first-hand purchases, I prefer to use vegan leather. However, brands such as Matt & Nat have made me resentful. Nat is a great example of ethical sourcing, even though they use poor materials.
Vegan leather has a problem because most of them are made from plastic which is oil. Yes, fossil fuel. If you choose vegan leather, I assume you care about the environment, animals, and all life. Oil is probably not right for you if so. You can hide it with the handy term “vegan leather”.
Here is a list with almost all vegan leathers made entirely from plastic.
- Polyurethane (PU)
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
- Elastane (also known as Spandex and Lycra)
Vegan leather can be made entirely from plastic, but not all vegan leather. They are not all created equal. Vegan leather is often misunderstood as a fancy name of plastic.
This is the key point: Most leathers, vegan or not, are coated with plastic. When it comes to the sustainability of vegan leather vs traditional leather, the plastic argument isn’t very persuasive. This also means leather takes hundreds of years for it to biodegrade due to its plastic coatings and chemical treatments.
Vegan leather is able to outperform leather in carbon impact. Kering, a luxury goods conglomerate, estimates that vegan leather can have a greater impact than leather. This is understandable as vegan leather does not (usually) require deforestation to make space for cattle farming or the rearing and raising of animals. Vegan leather does not involve the killing or torture of animals.
The question is: Is there sustainable vegan leather? I still have concerns about plastic. This is why I created a list of fashion textiles that will hopefully demonstrate how vegan leather is moving away from plastic and embracing natural, plant-based products.
9 EXAMPLES FROM MORE SUSTAINABLE VEGAN LEATHER COLLECTIONS
1. CACTUS LEATHER
Desserto is a vegan leather made of cactus. It’s one of the most innovative vegan leathers on the market. This vegan leather, even though it is made from prickly plant material, is soft and supple. It can be used to make any kind of leather product. It feels better than any other vegan leather, in my opinion.
The down side? Desserto isn’t plastic-free. It allegedly contains 65% of PU and 30% cactus (by mass). It is also not completely biodegradable.
2. PINEAPPLE LEATHER
The pineapple is another exotic plant that is transforming the vegan leather industry. Enter, Pinatex! This vegan leather is made of waste pineapple leaves. It was sourced from the Philippines and finished in Spain or Italy. This creates a thicker and more durable textile, which even has its own ‘grain’. Pinatex is a plant-based leather made from vegan plants. It’s likely that you already know it.
Pinatex is a sustainable fashion and homewares shop that focuses on timeless design and natural materials. I have used the pinatex coin purse for many years. It has held its shape and color over the years, making it an excellent alternative to leather.
Pinatex isn’t completely biodegradable, and it contains plastic. Although it is not known what Pinatex’s full composition is, the FAQ page states that they have “optimised the maximum bio-based PPU we can use while still providing longevity to our materials.”
3. MYCELIUM (MUSHROOM) LEATHER
Let’s clarify: mycelium is not a mushroom, but a type fungi. It is, however, mushroom leather. Two manufacturers are pioneering this soft, yet durable vegan leather: Mylo & MycoWorks. Stella McCartney has featured their products in Hermes collections. Luxury fashion seems to have adopted mushroom leather more than any other vegan skin, and Kering is investing in Mylo, it’s likely that more will follow.
But guess what? Mylo is not plastic-free and I have doubts about MycoWorks.
4. CORN LEATHER
Corn leather is a minor player on the market. This was the first time I came across it after Veja made a limited edition of Campo trainers from corn waste. I was thrilled! Finally, my favorite sneaker brand uses a material I can buy without going against all my values! They let the world know that corn was no longer an option due to scaling issues and lack of transparency in bio-plastics industry. They are particularly concerned about GMO crops. This is understandable.
However, you can still find corn leather in boutique collections like Mashu’s Philippa bag*. These bags are a true example of sustainable vegan leather. They combine 73% bio-based mass content made from non GMO corn and 27% recycled polyester.
5. GRAPE LEATHER
Mashu* also pioneered grape leather, a vegan leather made from plant-based leathers. Mashu’s latest collection* features a range of new vegan textiles in a stunning way.
Vegea is one such manufacturer of grape leather. Vegea, a vegan leather manufacturer, doesn’t disclose the use of plastic. However, V-Textile does say that “VEGEA” is a vegan-coated fabric, which indicates that plastic may be present. I am left wondering why so few manufacturers won’t disclose the plastic component of their textiles. The lack of transparency makes me feel uncomfortable.
We’re talking about Mirum, while we’re still on the topic of lack of transparency surrounding plant leather.
Mirum could be an innovative form of vegan sustainable leather. Their claim? Vegan leather is “climate-friendly and plastic-free”. It can also be recycled to make new MIRUM(r), or it can be ground up and returned back to the earth at the end. It’s both plastic-free and circular, which is quite impressive.
NFW, the company that makes Mirum’s revolutionary new textile, is not telling the truth. They claim it is made from “Natural Materials”. The word natural does not have legal meaning…
7. LEAF LEATHER
Thamon’s leaf collection of vegan leather is a great choice if you are looking for a plant-based leather that looks good. Pinatex, which is also made of leaves, has a natural texture that this teak leaf leather shows.
Thamon, unlike other vegan leather brands on this list, is open about the manufacturing process for its leaf leather. However, I am curious about the composition of the fabric sheet that the leaves are glued onto before being assembled into bags. They don’t claim to be 100% plastic-free, so I suspect some plastic is involved.
8. CORK LEATHER
Cork leather is next, from tree leaves to tree bark. Blackwood is the first brand that comes to mind when I think of sustainable vegan leather goods made with cork. After visiting a cork oak-growing region in Portugal in 2016, I have seen firsthand how well these trees are cared for. It takes nine years for cork bark to regrow after harvesting!
It’s difficult to determine what other materials were used in Blackwood’s accessories, bags, and purses. Although it’s likely that it’s plastic since they don’t claim to be 100% plastic-free, I love the way cork feels and looks.
9. BACTERIA LEATHER
Let’s finally get into the wonderful world of bacterial skin. This is another leather-like material.
Celium, or Bacterial Leather, has been around for six years and is now being made on an industrial scale. It is a bacteria that grows from fruit waste and does not require any land clearing. This makes its carbon footprint very low. The bacteria does not use PVC and PU, although it is not claiming that it is plastic-free. What will the final result look like? The final result is yet to be determined, but it could be the best vegan leather in the future.
So, is SUSTAINABLE Vegan Leather a Real Thing?
I have researched nine types of vegan leather textiles that are more sustainable. All of these materials, except one, are made from some type of plastic. These materials are still a viable alternative to leather.
I am still not sold on the vegan leather (Mirum) that claims it is plastic-free. Although it claims it is made from natural materials, that doesn’t give enough information to determine if it’s a sustainable option. Natural materials can be harmful to the environment, people, and animals. There is no legal definition of natural materials. Before I recommend it, I would like to learn more.
Your fashion choices, just like your diet, are individual and will take some time to determine what works best for you. The most sustainable garment in sustainability is the one you already own. Shop less, style more and prioritize sustainability in all cases.