We have been conditioned to think that leather is best, and for decades we’ve lived in a world where the vast majority of our shoes, belts, bags are made with animal skin. Most people don’t know it’s possible to make vegan leather from plants!
People who are conscious about their clothes and want to be cruelty-free are starting to switch over.
This article will explore how plant-based vegan leather is made, what different materials exist, and how they’re used in fashion.
Artisans in Portugal, the region with some of the world’s best cork forests and expertise making leather goods from it for centuries, are reinventing themselves as masters at processing a lightweight alternative to traditional animal hides.
The cork material comes from the bark of the cork-oak tree that is found mainly in Mediterranean regions.
The bark is removed from the tree, and the tree renews it after about nine years. It’s worth mentioning that the removal of the bark doesn’t harm the tree. As the bark regrows, it absorbs a massive amount of carbon dioxide from the air, making cork harvesting good for the environment as it reduces greenhouse gases. From one tree, we can get around 100 pounds of cork.
Processing the cork to create accessories involves the following steps: The cork is left to air dry for six months after being harvested. After that, it’s boiled and steamed to provide it with extra elasticity and formed into blocks by applying heat and pressure. Then, depending on the application, it can be sliced into thin layers to create a leather-like material.
Cork leather processing is chemical-free; this makes the product completely natural, vegan, and environmentally friendly.
Apart from being a natural material, cork is also water-resistant, and no additional processing needs to be done to the material to achieve this feature. The cork’s cell walls contain a waxy substance called suberin – a biopolymer – that naturally makes the material impermeable.
Its water resistance properties make cork ideal to use in wallets and bags since it can keep documents and electronic devices safe.
Cork products are also very durable, thanks to the hexagon cell structures that resemble beehives. Such a pattern is solid and can resist compression and creasing.
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Another great advantage of the cork is its lightness, with over 50% of its volume being air. Lightness is excellent for accessories like shoes, bags, or laptop covers since none likes to carry extra weight on them.
Softness is also one of the main characteristics that make cork especial, making products feel luxurious.
Given its natural properties, products made of cork are unique as there are no two equal pieces. Man cannot recreate cork, and that is what makes it a sustainable material.
In short, cork’s natural qualities make this material perfect for use in apparel products where durability matters most – quality shines through while its sustainability makes the earth happy as well.
Imagine what life would be like if the leaves of your favorite fruit were used to create material for all sorts of things, including accessories and clothing. That’s what Spanish entrepreneur Dr. Carmen Hijosa had in mind when she developed Piñatex—a fabric made from pineapple leaf fibers that resemble leather but is much more sustainable than traditional hides or synthetics.
After living in the Philippines in the 1990s, she learned how the locals would create clothing from the fibers of the pineapple leaves. That gave Carmen the idea that she could make a non-woven material to resemble leather using those fibers, too.
But how’s Piñatex made? Here’s a summary of the process: The long fibers of the pineapple leaf are extracted using semi-automatic machines after the pineapple harvest. Then, fibers are washed and then dried naturally by the sun. Once dry, the fibers go through a purification process. The resulting material gets mixed with a corn-based polylactic acid and undergoes a mechanical approach to create Piñafelt, the base of all Piñatex products.
Lastly, the Piñafelt is shipped from the Philippines to Spain or Italy for specialized finishing.
The material’s natural origins as by-products of pineapples make it more sustainable and environmentally friendly than traditional leather.
Also, the reuse of waste materials offers the opportunity to build a scalable commercial industry that develops farming communities with minimal environmental impact by providing an alternative form of income for those who need it most.
Piñanext is water-resistant, breathable, and light, much lighter than leather. It’s used in the same way as traditional leather in apparel, accessories, and furniture. The material is a favorite among 1000 brands worldwide, including Hugo Boss, H&M, and the Hilton Hotel Bankside. Isn’t that amazing?
If you would like to learn more about this incredible material, I recommend reading our guide to Piñatex.
Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez, two Mexican entrepreneurs seeking to make fashion more sustainable for future generations, saw leather as a problem in the industry. They set out on a journey to create an alternative material that would be both fashionable and environmentally friendly.
As a result of this interest, the founders decided to start their company, Adriano Di Marti, and dedicate all their time to developing a vegan alternative to leather made from the nopal plant, a type of cactus. They called their innovation Desserto.
The nopal cactus is a succulent plant native to Mexico. The spiky, green-tinted leaves can grow in abundance without any human help. Nopal doesn’t even need a drop of water to grow because it is a hygroscopic plant, which means it grows thanks to the humidity of the environment; hence it doesn’t need an irrigation system like other crops.
The advantages of Desserto are many: it’s durable like normal animal hides – a benchmark for any marketable product; soft enough at a touch without compromising on anything else such as strength or stability; eco-friendly because its production doesn’t require harmful chemicals or heavy metals typically used in traditional tanning methods but instead relies on natural materials found right here in nature, and even vegan since no animals were harmed during harvesting.
How’s cactus leather made? The mature leaves are selected and cut without killing the plant; the new leaves grow every 6 to 8 months, which allows for frequent harvesting cycles. After cutting them, the mature leaves are cleaned and smashed into a pulp. They’re left out in the sun for three days to dry at just-right humidity levels; no additional energy is used.
After the plant’s protein has been obtained, it gets colored using GOTs certified colors and supplemented by bio-polyurethane.
The final product is up to 68% natural and organic. The rest is composed of recycled polyester and cotton for added strength and durability.
Desserto is partially biodegradable and has the technical specifications required by the fashion, leather goods, luxury packaging, and furniture industries.
If you’re interested in knowing more about cactus leather, make sure to check out our article about Desserto.
Thanks to some up-and-coming Italian entrepreneurs, wineries can now turn their grape marc – otherwise thrown away as agricultural byproducts – into luxury leathers that could rival those made from more traditional materials.
Francisco Merlino, an environmental chemist at the University of Florence, founded Vegea in 2016 and Gianpiero Tessitore – a furniture designer. Their goal? To continue to provide luxury goods for customers while being environmentally conscious!
The company has been developing sustainable alternatives to traditional leather by integrating chemistry and agriculture innovation. According to their website, Vegea comes from the combination of VEG(vegan) and GEA(Mother Earth).
Vegea, in collaboration with Italian wineries, has developed a new way for the vineyards to turn grape waste dumped as part of the wine-making process into luxurious materials.
Vegea customized the technology and machinery already used in the traditional leather industry to produce leather from the grape. The process starts when the remains of the wine production, the grape marc, are dried. The dry grape marc is then combined with vegetable oil and water-based polyurethane to create an eco-composite material.
For every 10 liters of wine produced, about 2.5 liters are wasted, and that’s enough to make 1 square meter of grape leather!
Check out our article in where we explain more details about this innovative grape leather.
Mycelium (mushroom) leather
Mycelium is a natural fiber that can be used as an alternative to plastics. It’s considered by many environmentalists and scientists alike to be the next frontier in technology.
Mycelium is the foundational system of the fungus. The easiest way to picture it would be to compare and contrast mycelium with a plant: mycelium being the roots, mushrooms are just like flowers that bloom on its surface; some may never produce these precious fungi.
Leather and mycelium share many similarities and have comparable qualities. Mycelium is multicellular, just like leather, which comes from animal skin. It’s composed of microscopic parts, or filaments, that can be directed to produce a material that drapes and moves around just so much does leather.
Additionally, the process of growing mycelium is revolutionary because it allows for customization. Designers can adjust the thickness, strength, texture, flexibility, and other properties to suit their needs and create a new leather-like material that’s perfect just for them.
Companies reproduce what happens in the forest ground but inside a controlled indoor environment to germinate mycelium. They take cells from mushrooms and feed them sawdust or organic material while controlling humidity and temperature to make sure it resembles the natural conditions of outdoors.
A fundamental aspect that companies have had to perfect is inducing the right conditions for the mycelium to grow in a predictable and controlled way.
Mycelium fabric has a huge environmental advantage over traditional leather in the production process. Mycelium takes only days to germinate and does not require raising livestock or using lots of water for land that can take years before it becomes a product.
The possibilities for this innovative fabric are endless. We look forward to seeing what fashion designers will come up with when using mycelium as their materials!
To learn more about mycelium and how it can be applied to fashion, check out our article in where we go into more detail about the companies exploring it.
The use of animal products for fashion has been a hotly debated topic in recent years. Animal rights activists and environmentalists alike have called on designers to stop using leather, wool, fur, and similar materials from their collections. Faux leather also brings its own concerns.
But, what other materials are out there? Luckily, new technology has created plant-based vegan leather, which is environmentally friendly while still being stylish!
It’s important to emphasize that most of the current plant-derived leathers are materials made by combining biomass waste with polyurethane dispersion to improve the material’s physical properties. While adding polyurethane improves the final material’s properties, it stops the fabric from biodegrading fully, making it more complicated to be recycled.
With that in mind, you can opt for only consuming low-wash and durable products made from these materials, such as shoes and bags.
We hope you enjoyed this article! Let us know your opinions in the comments.