Plant-based vegan leather is one of the hottest topics in sustainable fashion at the moment. We've been talking about vegan leather alternatives since we created our store in 2017. With so many new plant-based leathers coming onto the market, we dug deep to find out more.
Why choose a plant-based leather, and what are the options available today?
We've spoken at length in the past about the downfalls of animal leather and synthetic leather. Animal leather is a toxic industry, relying on industrial cattle farming in the Brazilian Amazon, India, China, and Bangladesh for its cowhides, causing immense animal suffering, cruelty, and pollution, and then exposing the people involved in the tanning of leather to an untold amount of hazardous chemicals, including formaldehyde, arsenic, and chromium, which are highly carcinogenic. Underpaid and exploited workers wade knee-deep in these chemical slurries, which then end up in the local rivers and waterways, polluting the entire region and dramatically reducing the quality of life for its inhabitants. One message is clear: animal skin is not ours to wear, and the attempt to produce animal leather on an industrial scale to keep up with the demands of the fashion industry has disastrous consequences.
The next step in the conversation is synthetic vegan leather, which is a 100% petroleum-based material. PVC was originally used to make synthetic leather, but given its now proven levels of high toxicity - even in the final product - it is being rapidly phased out by polyurethane. While polyurethane is much less toxic, it still involves a range of harsh chemicals and solvents to produce and is also a petrochemical-derived substance in its entirety.
So we know animal leather and completely synthetic leather are both less than eco-friendly options, so what to do?
Some positive news is that there are many new plant-based vegan leather options that are now available on the market. These textiles are made from bark, leaves, cactus, fruit remains, and vegetable fibers - and the innovation is only just beginning. These fabrics make use of plant-derived material that would often otherwise be considered a waste product.
While they are free from animal product, we do also need to take into account that these vegan leather alternatives may contain plastic and other petrochemical derived ingredients. EDIT: New information has recently come out (December 2021) revealing that some of the materials listed below, previously thought to be a step in the right direction, may contain banned substances.
So, as worldwide demand for leather and leather alternatives increases, let's have a look at some of the plant-based leathers available today and discuss each of them - who makes them, how they were created, where they are produced, and brands who use them.
Photo Credit: Instagram @amorimcork
- Considered the most sustainable type of forestry as trees are left unharmed when their bark is harvested
- Harvesting of cork bark contributes to the health and maintenance of the cork forests, which are some of the most biodiverse forests on the planet
- Helps prevent desertification of the cork forests
- Hypoallergenic and water-resistant material
Cork was the first of the plant-based leathers on this list to enter the world of sustainable fashion. Cork is the bark of the Cork Oak (Quercus suber), which grows only in the Mediterranean cork forests of Portugal (where the vast majority of cork oaks grow), Spain, Italy, France, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. It is a material that has been valued for its wide array of uses since ancient times. Cork contains a wax called Suberin in its cells, and it retains air pockets between these cells. Suberin is what allows for the material to resist water and dirt entering into its cells, rendering the material hydrophobic and naturally hypoallergenic. The air pockets contribute to cork's ability to muffle sound as well as to its flexibility and ability to maintain its original shape.
It is a myth that cork is endangered or that harvesting cork harms the cork trees. What makes cork so amazing is that its bark is harvested by hand in a careful process without harming the tree in any way - that is, only the outer layer of bark is removed. This process is carried out every 9 years on each cork tree once the tree reaches 25 years of age. Harvesting cork means that the trees are pruned and cared for throughout the year, and the forests are therefore protected by these caretakers from abandon and disuse. The cork trees are incredibly important to the survival of the Mediterranean forests, as they create a network of roots that act as a watershed to the entire region. They also are home to thousands of unique plant and animal species that are found only in cork forests. Without cork trees as the foundation of the Mediterranean cork forests, these vast areas of green, one of the world's largest carbon sinks, would become a desert.
Harvesting cork, due to the care and precision of the process of bark-removal, is considered by the FSC to be the most sustainable agriculture in the world. Cork oaks were never actually endangered, but the Portuguese government in the early 1900s declared the forests endangered to protect the endangered animal species that call them home as well to protect the forests from deforestation. In Portugal, the cork oak is protected by law, and it is illegal to cut down a cork oak.
Cork is truly a one-of-a-kind natural material that synthetics have yet to even come close to replicating. Its applications include wall insulation, flooring, gaskets, wine corks, and cork leather for use in fashion, among a range of other uses. Cork of all different ages is utilized for each of these applications, the younger cork being used to make corrugated material and cork leather, and the oldest cork used to make wine stoppers. This means that all of the harvested bark is used for something, and no bark goes to waste. Cork bark is dried for months in the sun and then boiled in water, ground into small pieces, and rolled into sheets of different granule density and textures depending on its intended application.
There's not much to say regarding any downfalls of cork. Its unique texture revealing the patterns found in the bark is one of our favorite aspects of the material, although not everyone loves its natural look.
The actual cork fabric itself used to make cork leather does not contain polyurethane, but some cork leather is backed using a thin layer of polyurethane material. Cork leather is also commonly available with a cotton textile used as a backing for the cork instead of PU. There are also producers in Portugal who are now using recycled polyester as a backing for cork leather as well.
2. Piñatex (Pineapple Leather)
- Made from pineapple leaf fiber
- Uses the inedible parts of a pineapple that would otherwise go to waste
- Supports local economies of pineapple-producing farming communities and strengthens their exports.
Piñatex is an innovative pineapple-based textile created by a woman named Dr. Carmen Hijosa. She is the founder of the London-based startup Ananas Anam, who manufactures and distributes this sustainably-sourced and cruelty-free material. Piñatex was developed for use as a sustainable alternative to both mass-produced leather and polluting synthetic materials. In the last five years, Piñatex has taken the internet by storm, appearing in the products made by numerous ethical fashion brands, mainly in bags, wallets, and shoes.
Dr. Hijosa spoke about her journey with Piñatex in a video of her TED Talk in Madrid in 2017. She begins discussing her background, as she owned a company in the 1990s that manufactured leather products. While traveling to see her producers in Colombia and the Philippines, she had a moment of awakening as to the ecological problems surrounding leather and started to think differently and see things from a new perspective. She realized that the production of leather was incredibly harmful to the environment and the workers and people in the communities, and immediately decided that she would no longer take part in using leather. So, she began asking herself how she could best help the people of these countries to make use of resources that were already plentiful in these rich agricultural lands.
Piñatex was developed when the makers of the sustainable textile realized that in the harvesting and processing of pineapples, there is a sizable amount of waste left over from pineapple leaves that had no previous commercial use. Considered a byproduct of the fruit industry, these leaves were traditionally discarded or burned.
Envisioning a solution to this problem of unused pineapple leaves, Ananas Anam created a way to transform these leaves and skins into a cruelty-free and plant-based vegan leather alternative to keep them from going to waste, inspired by a traditional Philippino textile called Piña. The goal was for Piñatex to not only have a low environmental impact but a high level of positive social impact. Making use of the leaves left behind from pineapples, Ananas Anam has added value to what was previously considered an unusable waste material and allowed pineapple farmers to create another income stream. Ananas Anam is currently working with pineapple farmers in the Philippines. These farmers otherwise rely on a seasonal harvest, so this allows for greater economic stability and growth of their communities. Ananas Anam supports these rural communities by working directly with farming cooperatives.
Piñatex has been created with environmental stewardship at the heart of the project. As it is made from pineapple leaves naturally left behind from harvesting pineapples, no additional new resources are required to create the raw material. Ananas Anam states that no chemicals on the Cradle2cradle list of banned substances are used in the production of Piñatex and that the non-woven mesh is biodegradable.
Piñatex is also a closed-loop production, as residual leaf biomass left over after is used as natural fertilizer/biofuel as well.
So, how is Piñatex made? Ananas Anam states that 480 pineapple leaves, the equivalent to 16 pineapple plants, create one square meter of Piñatex. We did some digging to find out the exact chemical composition of the material.
Piñatex is a non-woven textile, which is a fabric bonded together without knitting or weaving. It is made using the long fibers found in pineapple leaves. The fibers are extracted from the leaves using a process called decortication and hung to dry. The by-product of this decortication process is what is used to make biogas or organic fertilizer.
Then, these pineapple fibers undergo an industrial process to become a non-woven textile. So what does this industrial process entail exactly? We found that the extracted pineapple fibers are combined with poly-lactic acid (used to make biodegradable PLA plastic) and petroleum-based resin to create the final product.
The product is then finished in two factories in Barcelona before being exported to designers in countries across the world.
Piñatex is a soft textile with a unique ribbed texture and an eye-catching, pleasing aesthetic. Piñatex deserves a lot of credit as one of the first materials to spark the idea of a now ever-growing list of textiles made from fruit and vegetable remains.
Any downside to Piñatex? The only thing that we have found is, as stated above, that the material is currently coated with a non-biodegradable petroleum-based resin to prevent it from breaking down. This has benefits regarding the longevity of the product (so it doesn't break down after a few wears), but is contradictory to the otherwise eco-conscious ethics behind the material. It may pose a problem for the biodegradability of the product at its end-of-life. However, the creators of Piñatex have stated that they are working to find a biodegradable replacement for this resin.
There are numerous sustainable fashion brands and designers working with Piñatex fabrics to date. One of our favorite makers is Winge and Binge, located in Spain, who makes bags, waist pouches, wallets, and sunglasses cases with the material.
Credit: Instagram photo of Piñatex waist pouch by @wingeandbinge
3. Mushroom Leather
- 100% vegetable layer alternative to animal leather
- Made from the fiber of mushrooms
- Currently available for designers in small quantities
There are a few producers of mushroom or mycelium-based leather, another innovative vegetable-based alternative to animal leather. These types of mushroom leather use a similar base material but are quite different in their final form.
Let's look more closely at a couple of producers working with the prime material.
MuSkin by Grado Zero Innovation
MuSkin mushroom leather was developed in Florence, Italy by Grado Zero Innovation and is sold by Life Materials EU in small quantities. MuSkin mushroom leather is a 100% vegetable layer that comes from the Phellinus ellipsoideus, a large parasitic fungus that grows in the wild and attacks the trees in subtropical forests. It has a soft surface and feels similar to suede-like products to the touch. Its texture can range from soft to slightly harder, much like cork. Mushroom leather is naturally free from toxic substances, which makes it ideal for use in close-to-skin applications such as fashion items. Also similarly to cork, its natural chemical composition limits the proliferation of bacteria.
However, mushroom leather does differ from cork in that the material has the capacity to absorb moisture and then to release it in a short time. It is not waterproof in its natural form, but it can be treated with natural wax.
As this fungus-derived textile does not make use of any other additional fillers or fibers, it is a relatively thin and delicate material. Designers are recommended to couple or laminate MuSkin with other backing materials to increase its mechanical strength.
Photo Credit Lifematerials.eu, MuSkin mushroom leather sample
Reishi by MycoWorks
MycoWorks is a producer based in San Francisco, California who has created a textile made from both mushrooms and wood fiber. Just a few weeks ago, it was officially unveiled to the world for the first time at New York Fashion Week. Reishi is a thick fabric that is extremely similar to animal leather and does not need any additional backing. The creators of the material have studied the material for its strength (resistance to force), durability (how much use it can survive), and appearance (if the color or texture changes over time). They found that it matches animal leather in each of these categories.
The woven structure of Reishi is very similar to the tight "triple-helix" formation of collagen found in human and animal skin. The creators of Reishi state that skin is in fact what inspired their patented Fine Mycelium process, as skin is the biological barrier of nature. They take the durability of their product extremely seriously and have had Reishi rigorously tested over the last 2 years by Vartest, a renowned leather testing house. They have recently published the test data (the first studies of its type on a biomaterial) which validated Reishi’s performance compared to cowhide leather. The mushroom-based textile matched or surpassed leather against all of the standard leather test criteria.
Reishi's production begins by growing the substrate in trays on plant biomass. The trays help Mycowork's proprietary fermentation process to function properly, as they enable mycelium cells to grow into a dense and intertwined structure that produces a strong and uniform sheet. The sheets are harvested by being cooked in an oven to stop the fungus from continuing to grow.
Reishi does make use of a tanning process, but they use a chrome-free process to produce various textures and finishes, while also excluding many other toxic chemicals from the tanning process as well that are typically used in leather production.
Due to the high level of structural similarity between Reishi and cowhide leather, Reishi can be crafted into goods using traditional hand tools used with leather, maintaining the admirable aspects of artisanal leather production, without animal cruelty and the use of hazardous tanning chemicals.
Credit: Instagram photo of Reishi mushroom leather by @madewithreishi
4. Pellemela (Apple Leather)
- Made from apple skins and cores that are created as waste by the apple juicing industry in Northern Italy
- Strong, naturally UV resistant, breathable and hypoallergenic
Apple leather is an innovative fruit-based leather that is made using the remaining apple skins and cores left behind from the apple juicing industry. It is a product created with the philosophy of zero-waste and a sustainable, circular economy in mind. Making use of the apple skins and cores that would otherwise be considered a waste product, the production of apple leather helps local apple industries to turn this waste into a valuable resource. This residual apple waste would otherwise go to landfill or be burned.
In 2008, an engineer from Alto Adige, Italy named Alberto Volcan created a company called Frumat with the idea of transforming this industrial apple waste into a new raw material that, being plant-based, would also be highly sustainable. Naturally, seeing the apple waste left behind from the juicing industry in Bolzano and Trentino-Alto Adige, where over half of the production of apples in Italy takes place (among the highest quality apple production in Europe), Volcan realized that there was a necessity to find a way to repurpose this material. The residual skins and cores every year measured up to about 500,000 tons, a considerable amount of waste left without a dedicated use. What's more, in Italy this waste is considered a "special waste" that is costly to dispose of.
Volcan, using his engineering background, was determined to give new life to this apple waste in the form of paper, textiles, and vegetable-based eco-leather.
Frumat opened their laboratory in Bolzano, and from there, apple leather or "Pellemela" was born. Frumat strives to maintain a close relationship with the apple producers in the nearby regions, reinforcing the local economy and reducing the environmental impact of production as much as possible.
Volcan, who holds several other patents for his creations, had already discovered in the past that the apple peels and cores left behind as waste from the juicing industry could be dried and ground into a powder to be used to clean up oil spills in the ocean, as they absorb petroleum spills at a rate of virtually 100% efficiency, leaving the water behind filtered and purified. According to Volcan, one kilo of dried apple powder absorbs 5 liters of petroleum.
In the following years, Volcan innovated paper products such as facial tissues and toilet paper, as well as packaging, made from the cellulose derived from dried apple powder. This paper was also adopted by the province of Bolzano for writing official letters and documents!
Fast forward to 2015 and we arrive at the creation of apple leather, obtained by mixing dried apple powder from waste peels and cores with water and a binding material, which is then processed and rolled out into sheets using a machine similar to a large pasta maker. From this machine, a large sheet is obtained that measures around 6 millimeters in thickness and can be up to 3 meters wide and a practically infinite length (depending on how much material is rolled out). As the cores and skins of the apples are transformed into a powder using a treatment of dehydration, cooling, and grinding, this blocks the decaying or fermenting of the raw apple material, leaving unaltered its content of sugars and cellulose.
Our only remaining question focuses on the binding material mixed with the dried apple powder - what is it exactly? Sources differ in their explanation, but we have found that most sources state that the biopolymer Pellemela or Appleskin leather is currently a mixture of 50% apple waste and 50% polyurethane.
Currently, a number of companies are using apple leather in their products, but the material itself is exclusively produced by Frumat. Some of these eco-fashion brands include Womsh, an Italian vegan shoe company, and Happy Genie, a vegan handbag company from Switzerland.
Credit: Instagram photo of Womsh shoes made with apple leather by @womsh.sneakers
5. Washable Paper
- Made from different types of paper including cardboard and washi, a paper derived from the bark of the fast-growing Japanese Kozo tree
- Lightweight, washable, cruelty-free and biodegradable
Washable paper is another type of sustainable vegan leather that is almost entirely made from plant cellulose. We believe that it is an eco-warrior material that definitely deserves mention along with the other plant-based leathers in this list.
Washable paper is unique in that it looks like leather (or sort of like leather and paper combined), but it easily washes like fabric. It also is sometimes called paper leather.
Washable paper is made in Europe under FSC Certification and Oeko-Tex Standard 100, some of the most stringent certifications regarding sustainable forestry and organic, toxin-free textiles, respectively. It is made from the cellulose found in plants, which is the main component of the plant cell wall. This cellulose-derived material is naturally incredibly lightweight, making it ideal for use in handbags and wallets.
Washable paper is 90-95% natural cellulose fiber and is completely biodegradable, as it starts breaking down after only two weeks in the soil. Of course, washable paper is a completely cruelty-free product like all of the other types of plant-based vegan leather on our list. This material is biodegradable yet resilient enough to last for years of use and many washings. It is recommended to wash items made with washable leather that have a structural shape by hand, but other items such as tote bags can even be washed on a low cycle in the washing machine and air-dried. The bag can also be steamed to bring it back to its original "crisp" look and feel.
Interestingly, washable paper resembles firm card stock before its first washing, which is ideal for creating products such as wallets and book covers, for example. But once the material is washed for the first time, it becomes a soft leather-like fabric that can be used to sew bags of all types. The more the fabric is washed, the softer it becomes, but it nevertheless remains durable enough to last for years.
There are a number of sustainable fashion brands currently working with the material. Of note, Pretty Simple Bags is a company out of Vietnam who has created a gorgeous handbag and wallet collection with paper leather, and Uashmama is a family-owned store based in Lucca, Italy that also uses the material to craft beautiful bags of all types.
Credit: Instagram photo of washable paper bags by @prettysimplebags
6. Teak Leaf Leather
- Layered material made from sustainably harvested Teak leaves
- Made from Teak leaves and cotton
- Developed and produced in Northern Thailand
Next up on our list is a plant-based leather made from teak leaves in Northern Thailand, known as "Leaf Leather" or "Teak Leaf Leather." It appears that it was developed and created by a man known as Mr. Leaf in 2003 in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He directly supplies a number of small brands working with the material today, and he has served as the inspiration for most of the brands that have innovated their own process of creating teak leaf leather.
To make teak leather, teak leaves are laid flat and laminated together with a polymer to form a sheet that can be sewn into bags and wallets. Why teak leaves in particular? These leaves are abundant in Northern Thailand, where this form of art has its roots, and the teak leaves are that are collected are those that have already fallen from the trees (no trees are harmed in the process). The leaves, therefore, are a sustainable and plentiful resource. Teak leaves are naturally large and strong, making them suitable to use in the application of textile production. An added bonus is that the natural patterns of the leaves can be clearly seen in the final product, giving it a striking, one-of-a-kind natural touch. The leaves that are used have a variety of shapes and sizes, each one leaving its own unique imprint in the material.
Our next question - with what type of polymer are the teak leaves laminated together? According to one brand working with the material, the polymer in question is a layer of BOPP film to provide the strength and durability needed in the final product.
BOPP film is the abbreviated name for Biaxially Oriented Polypropylene. This is a type of plastic polymer, but it is less environmentally harmful than other similar lamination options. Less of it is needed compared to other films such as those made from polyester to cover the same amount of material. This layer helps to create a moisture-resistant barrier in the final product and helps the material to resist cracking.
Like the other plant-based leathers on this list, teak leaf leather is lightweight yet durable enough to withstand years of use. It can be cleaned with a wet cloth much in the same way as cork.
Some notable brands working with the material are Thamon and Nuvi Nomad.
We reached out to Thamon and asked them about their process too. They told us that they personally produce their leaf leather sheets and are now located in Bangkok, Thailand, where they have moved from their original London location. The harvested teak leaves are treated with an environmentally-friendly polymer (we were told it is not BOPP but it is a patented trademark) to restore and enhance the leaves' properties and no toxic treatments or dyes are applied.
Nuvi Nomad, designed in Germany, states on their website that they have produced their material with the great help of Pi Pow from Mr. Leaf's local team, and the material is refined by Nuvi Nomad's own innovative technique to create a durable product, which has taken years to perfect. Their teak leaf leather is 95% natural and PETA Approved Vegan. Nuvi Nomad also states that they will be producing an advanced leaf leather in Germany in the near future from a different raw material for reasons like sustainable harvesting, transport, and transparency.
Credit: Instagram photo of teak leaf leather bags by @thamon.co
7. Cactus Leather "Desserto"
Photo Credit: Desserto official website
The most recent addition to the list of plant-based vegan leathers was introduced in November 2019, and a tidal wave of interest immediately surged around the material and its makers. This innovative newcomer is cactus leather, created by two entrepreneurs from Mexico, Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez. Known by its trade name Desserto, it is the first vegan leather made entirely from the nopal or prickly-pear cactus that grows in Mexico. It was presented for the first time in Milan, Italy at the International Leather Fair Lineapelle 2019, and there are already a number of brands that have projects with the material in the works. The material is also nominated for the German Green Product Award 2020 in the category of International Organic Products.
According to Desserto's website, the material has a high level of resistance and durability due to its strong molecular bonding inferred by the presence of cactus. As cactus is known for its thick skin, it naturally has an ideal texture to be used as a replacement for animal leather. It is resistant to abrasion, rubbing, and tearing. The material also is breathable and able to withstand humidity without cracking. Like cork, Desserto is resistant to bacteria and mildew, easy to clean with a wet cloth, fire resistant, and able to withstand extreme heat or cold.
Desserto also is similar to cork in the way that the cactus is harvested. The cactus, being the most common plant in Mexico, is not "killed," but only the largest pieces are removed from the plant, leaving the smaller leaves to continue to grow. The plant regrows back in a matter of months. According to this video filming their patented process, the largest leaves from the plant are cut off, cleaned, mashed, and dried for three days. Then, the mashed and dried cactus is mixed with non-toxic chemicals and then rolled out and shaped into any texture.
The producers of Desserto say that the material lasts up to ten years, and it is partially biodegradable. The brand's mission is to help the environment, phase animal leather out of fashion, and also create jobs working with the material in the production of shoes, bags, leather couches, and car interiors.
Credit: Instagram photo of Desserto cactus leather by @desserto.pelle
8. Mango Leather
Mango leather is a recently available vegan leather made by Fruitleather Rotterdam, a company out of the Netherlands. The company has experimented for years with creating leather from fruit remains, and are currently working with mangos as they have seen that mangos have rendered the best results compared to other fruits. Their vision from the start has been to show how waste can be used in a positive way to create new resources.
Fruitleather Rotterdam specializes in the creation of the material itself, and work with brands and designers to bring products made with mango leather to life. They produce all of the material at their facility in Rotterdam, and they are the sole distributor and manufacturer of the material worldwide. They are currently producing 50-70 square meters per month of mango leather.
Is mango leather a 100% natural product?
In the production of the raw material, some additives derived from natural sources are used to make Fruitleather sheets. However, the mango-based material is created using different types of backings, one of which is a polyester-based textile.
We ordered some samples of the material to see in person, and it really does smell like mangos! It has a nice feel to it and is quite thick, with intricate patterns in the material from its mango content.
In this month of March 2020, the London-based brand Luxtra is premiering a line of vegan leather fashion items made with mango leather.
Credit: Instagram photo of mango leather by @fruitleatherrotterdam
9. Wine Leather
Italian start-up Vegea has recently created a new plant-based leather from something quite plentiful in Italy (as one might imagine) - grape remains left behind from wine-making! Putting these grape skins and pulp left behind by the industry to good use, Vegea has found a way to turn this waste product of wine production into vegan leather.
VEGEA company was founded in 2016 in Milan with the idea to promote the integration between chemistry and agriculture through the development of new eco-friendly and sustainable materials. By leveraging the use of renewable resources as an alternative to non-renewable fossil fuel resources, they use biomass vegetable raw materials to create their vegan leather from primarily grape remains.
The vegan leather that the company has created is also called simply VEGEA as a material. The name VEGEA comes from the combination of VEG (Vegan) and GEA (Mother Earth). It was chosen to represent the company's dedication to the creation of next generation alternative vegetable-based materials to totally oil-based and animal-derived ones.
Characterized by a high content of vegetable-based/recycled raw materials such as vegetable oils and natural fibers from agroindustry, the main fields of application for this vegan leather are fashion, furniture, packaging, automotive & transportation, much in the same way that cork can be used across these industries.
All of VEGEA's textiles are compliant with the most stringent European regulations (REACH), they are solvent free, animal-friendly and Made in Italy.
VEGEA is currently produced in several versions which differ by technical and aesthetic properties. The thickness, elasticity, weight, finishing, texture, backing textile and bio-based content vary throughout these different versions of the material.
The vegan wine leather known as VEGEA is currently being produced for brands who are interested in using the material. We will keep you posted as to which brands start using the material in the future!
Credit: Instagram photo of Wineleather by @vegeacompany
There are sure to be more additions to this list in the future!
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.