Eco-Friendly Vegan Leathers: All there is to Know

12th January 2021

Although leather has been a vital material and resource for thousands of years, we now live in an era where cruelty-free alternatives are readily available — in this post, we’ll learn more about vegan leathers, veggie leather, or faux leather.

vegan leather

No matter what your stance is on veganism or the importance of cruelty-free practices, it’s impossible to argue that animal leather has not been an essential resource for humans going back as much as 7000 years. But this is 2021, and the technology and creative use of recycled materials have allowed us to seek and implement cruelty-free alternatives.

Also, you can check out a few of my previous posts to see some examples of vegan leathers being used for clothing, shoes and accessories:


What are Vegan Leathers?

Vegan leather is a material that looks, and in many cases, closely resembles animal leather. The difference? There are no animal parts or materials used for the material itself or throughout the production process, such as hide, feathers or anything else. You will have likely heard the term ‘pleather’ to describe faux leather, which refers to veggie leather made from PU (polyurethane) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride).

vegan Dr. Martens

This raises a significant talking point both in and out of the vegan community, as the use of plastic materials do have a negative impact on the environment. Of course, this adds fuel to the animal leather vs plant-based leather fire and opens the door for debates about which has the most impact. According to this article, backed by credible sources, vegan leathers cause just a third of the environmental impact compared to animal leathers.

This isn’t to say that no vegan leathers should or will use PU or PVC in the production process, as it’s challenging for brands to perfect methods that allow them to create completely plastic-free items. For example, many veggie leather companies on the rise require plastic-based resources for binding agents and are yet to discover a way to replicate the benefits plastic offers. But it’s only a matter of time. Below, I’ll highlight a few of the most exciting and pretty damn creative source materials being used to make vegan leather fabric.


Piñatex

Piñatex is a synthetic leather made from the fibres of pineapple plant leaves, which are discarded throughout the harvest, meaning that sourcing the material requires no additional environmental resources to make. A British Materials company called Ananas Anam was one of the first major companies to focus their efforts on plant-sourced materials. The leaves are sourced from a plantation in the Philippines and would have been left to rot or be destroyed anyway.

The fibres are mixed with polylactic acid (PLA), a corn-based bioplastic, then crafted into a non-woven mesh. From here, the material is finished and coated to create a flexible yet highly durable material. Many plant-based veggie leathers are still in the prototype stage, but Piñatex is already out there and being used by leading brands such as Hugo Boss.


Cactus Leather

Another fantastic example of vegan leather to look out for is cactus leather. Yep, you read that right. Mexican-based brand Desserto has brought something very innovative, creative and really intriguing to the table with the use of cactus leaves in the production of leather products. The use of cactus leaves offers an all-natural, organic and completely cruelty-free alternative for consumers and brands.

After two years of research and development, we managed to produce a suitable material that complies with the features and technical/mechanical specifications required by those industries that use animal or veggie leather.

– Adrián López Velarde, co-founder and vice president of Desserto

After following the plastic pollution crisis, the founders of the company began to search for alternative materials that did not impact the planet or put more plastic products on the market. Intrigued by the nopal cactus, which grows in large volumes throughout Mexico and does not need water to grow, they believed that they stumbled upon something that could be used as a leather alternative and make the fashion industry more sustainable. And they were right.

Desserto only launched last year, but have already made a huge impact on the industry and are on course to become a big player in the vegan leathers sector. So, if you’re a fan of cactuses and also vegan leathers — it’s a win-win!


Olive Leather

Olives are one of those foods that divide people. For some, they’re a delicious snack or addition to a meal, to others, they’re a salty looking grape thing to be avoided at all costs. But did you know that olives, or olive leaves to be specific, are now being used in the production of vegan leathers?

German footwear brand thies released a range of men, women and children’s sneakers made from ‘olive leather’, which is created using leftover leaves from olive harvests. So again, no leaves were alive or torn from plants to make the leather. Therefore, the use of olive leather is environmentally-friendly, uses no plastic materials and completely avoids cruelty or the use of animal-based materials.

The ‘leather’ utilises a patented wet-green technique to produce an ultra-fine material, with the vital ingredient coming from a substance on olive leaves that’s key purpose is to ward off predators — cool, right? This substance is recovered and collected using a method that isn’t too dissimilar from brewing tea.


Apple Peel Leather

When you eat an apple or any other fruit, it’s pretty impossible to imagine that the peel could or would be used to craft vegan leathers or even a material that is slightly sturdy. But two sisters, designers and co-founders of SAMARA have worked super hard on an innovative and ridiculously creative method of using discarded apple peel from juicing to make vegan leathers. As it stands, they have created a really cool mini purse in a range of colours, but are continuing their efforts to expand and further establish the use of apple peel leather in the fashion industry. While they still use polyurethane as a binding agent, so it’s not 100% plastic-free, this is very much a goal close to their hearts and something they are looking to achieve in the near future.

If that wasn’t enough to make you want to support their brand, SAMARA has partnered with The Soular Backpack to put a percentage of every purchase towards a solar-powered backpack for children in East Africa, as a safer and healthier alternative to kerosene lamps (these lamps cause cancer).


Grape Leather

Yes, grapes. Something as small as grapes, the stems, seeds and skins can be used to make a viable leather alternative. If we have people that are creative and smart enough to make bespoke leather products from these materials that are leftover from the wine-making process, it must make non-vegans rethink their stance of the environmental impact of animal leathers, let alone the sheer waste of animal lives.

Upon realising that there was yet to be a truly green alternative or synthetic and animal leather, Gianpiero Tessitore, an architect and furniture designer decided to change that. With Frances Merlino, an industrial chemist, they co-founded Vegea, and after several years of research discovered that it was possible to craft vegan leather from grape seeds, skins and stems. That means no heavy metals, toxic solvents or dangerous substances in the production process, oh and no animal cruelty, of course.

They began with prototype dresses, handbags and shoes after winning the Global Change Award and went on to win the Horizon 2020, the most significant EU research and innovation program out there. Vegea established itself as one of the start-ups to keep an eye on and also a brand that strives for change in a long-established industry where cruelty-free, eco-friendly products simply are not the norm. Now you can buy everything from shoes, boots, purses and even furniture made from grape leather!


Coffee Ground Leather

When designers or start-ups look for new source materials to create the fibres needed for leather alternatives, they search high and low, but the last place you’d expect them to look is their trash. Anyone who brews coffee at home using beans or ground beans will throw away or recycle ground coffee every day, but it’s not exactly common knowledge that coffee grounds can be used to make leather. However, the future of fashion is looking to be intriguing from a materials point of view, especially when considering vegan leathers.

Although coffee ground leather is yet to be perfected and used as widely as other vegan leathers, the process used creates a durable and multi-functional fibre that can be used to make a range of different products. Not only does it offer green fashion brands a new avenue to explore, but also tackles the issue of food waste. Rather than throw coffee grounds away, both small and large coffee chains can offload their grounds to source eco-friendly brands. Two birds with one stone, so to speak.


MuSkin Mushroom Leather

MusKin is vegan leather made from the caps of a mushroom species called Phellinus ellipsoideus. It can be used and treated in the same way as animal leather, but with the added benefit of using entirely natural production methods. The use of ‘eco-wax’ and similar eco-friendly products provides the leather with unique characteristics that are pretty much impossible to replicate. The end result is a leather-like material with a suede-like finish.

Not only is mushroom leather made in an eco-friendly way, but the use of Phellinus ellipsoideus also has an additional environmentally beneficial effect. This type of mushroom feeds on trees and causes them to rot, therefore using this mushroom not only avoids the use of animal products but also helps to preserve a healthy environment.

While the thought of wearing a mushroom outfit might give you a mental image of a character out of Mario, the reality is that it’s a brilliant solution for many of the issues that animal leather causes and supports a more sustainable future.


If you want to know more about vegan products, the best vegan spots eat in a city near you or anything else vegan-related, feel free to check out my other vegan posts.

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