Vegan & Alternative Leather - But Not As You Know It
What’s the problem with leather?
Leather is one of the oldest materials used in the history of clothing - and still wildly popular as a staple piece in many wardrobes. Despite their versatility and longevity, leather also comes with a hefty price tag on the environment, as well as human and animal welfare. The rearing of livestock for the meat and leather industry is responsible for nearly 15% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, while also contributing significantly to deforestation, water and land overuse. Meanwhile, the most common leather tanning process (“chrome tanning”), involving highly toxic chemicals such as chromium sulphates that are harmful to health and the environment, uses around 300 kilos of chemicals for every 900 kilos of animal hides tanned. Furthermore, most leather are being processed in developing countries that lack the infrastructure and controls for waste management, and toxic chemicals often flow straight into local waterways along with other untreated waste, causing severe health problems like skin disease and respiratory illnesses amongst tannery workers and local population.
Innovations in sustainable leather
Thankfully, a number of exciting innovations have emerged in recent years to bring sustainable leather alternatives into the market. No, we are NOT referring to the vegan leather made from fossil fuel derivatives such as polyurethane (PU) or Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC, the most environmentally damaging of all plastics), but rather we are talking about completely new leather-like materials created from either renewable, biodegradable sources or sustainable processes. Below we provide an overview on the latest innovations around leather and unpack the enabling technologies behind.
Plant based Leather
One of the main types of sustainable alternatives gaining attention of the fashion world is Plant-Based Leather, created from a vast range of vegetable and fruit by-products such as apple skin by Frumat, cactus by Desserto, flowers by Le Qara, Mycelium (aka. Mushroom Fungus) by Mylo and Mycoworks, Pineapple Skin by Piñatex, Tree Leaves by BeLEAF and wine grape residue by Vegea. These eco-friendly materials crafted from nature not only have beautiful hand-feel, their strength and durability have also improved to a comparable level to cowhide after significant investments, R&D and technology breakthrough in recent years. As plant-based leather gains traction in the market and become the mainstream, it will take profits away from animal-derived leather industry, thereby accelerating the move away from the carbon and water intensive livestock industry, at the same time eliminating the pollution from the tanning process.
Another key type of sustainable choice is Recycled Leather. Unlike plant-based alternatives, these are created from pre-consumer animal leather scraps. Leather recycling technology plays a key role in minimising waste and closing the loop on the leather industry. According to a 2000 UN report, at least 800,000 tonnes of leather waste are produced by the global leather industry from post-industrial off-cuts. To tackle this issue, leading suppliers in this field such as Recyc Leather have developed a solution that can truly close the loop. With their mission of transforming leather waste into higher value products, their technologies convert leather garden gloves off-cuts into different types of leather grains suitable for handbags, shoes, jewellery packaging and home furnishing, whilst ensuring 90% less water usage and zero manufacturing waste during the production process. Furthermore, the entire production supply-chain are located within the same region in southern China, from raw material source, leather recycling to production, ensuring greater transparency whilst minimising the logistic footprint across the production stages.
Finally, and perhaps the most intriguing innovation breakthrough, is the bio-fabricated leather from material science companies such as Vitro Labs and Modern Meadow. In contrast to traditional leather, which is made from collagen based animal hides that have been chemically altered through tanning processes to remove almost everything but collagen, bio-fabricated leather is made from collagen grown from yeast in a lab, created through a similar process to cell-based protein company such as Memphis Meats and Eat Just. Similar to plant-based leather, the commercialisation of bio-fabricated leather technology would remove subsidy to the meat industry. Assessing through a different lens, one can estimate the potential environmental impacts by using plant based food industry as a proxy. A recent report by Rethink analysing the impact of the Food and Agriculture industry disruption, estimated that if 60% of the land currently used for livestock can be freed and re-used for reforestation, and efforts were made to utilise planting techniques intended to maximise carbon sequestration, all current sources of US greenhouse gas emissions could be fully offset.
For fashion to become truly sustainable, it is critical to reduce its dependence on animal leather, one of the most polluting materials used by the industry, and shift towards plant-based, sustainably and ethically produced alternatives. It is exciting to see that with the latest technologies, there are now many inspiring yet sustainable leather-like alternatives. Many fashion houses are already creating beautiful handbags, shoes and jackets made from these materials, proving it’s possible to create luxurious leather goods whilst reducing damages to our living planet.