PART 2 – THE FUTURE OF SUSTAINABLE LEATHER INDUSTRY
The global “leather alternative” market, currently valued at $25 billion, is projected to reach $45 billion by 2025. This almost 100% increase is a proof that fashion brands are looking for more sustainable non-animal leather alternatives to tap into the growing market share and respond to the consumer demand. While most of the leather alternatives today are still made of synthetic fibers, there is an increasing number of new innovative materials ranging from plant-based fabrics made from agricultural waste, to totally futuristic lab grown fabrics!
PLANT – BASED MATERIALS:
Here are some of my favorite materials already widely available on the market:
- Piñatex fabric created by London based company Ananas Anam, is one of the most popular and most affordable substitutes made from pineapples! More precisely it is made from pineapple leaf waste as a by-product of the pineapple food industry, therefore providing additional income for the farmers in Philippines! It uses renewable resources and significantly less water, energy and chemicals to produce.
- Apple Skin fabric created by Italian company Frumat, is a bio-based leather alternative derived from the apple industry food waste! When its founders realized the amount of waste created in Italy’s largest apple growing region, they also saw a huge economic potential and developed this material. Appleskin can be made in a variety of different textures, thickness and prints and is suitable for apparel and accessories.
- Vegea grape leather is a material made from grape “marc” which is leftovers of wine production (seeds, skins and stalks). Probably my favorite idea ever 🙂 I will gladly have a glass of wine if it means more sustainable materials can be produced!! Every year there is about 7 billion kg of this wine byproducts that are simply wasted. The process of making grape leather doesn’t require any toxic solvents, chemicals or heavy metals.
- Desserto is a cactus leather created by a Mexican company Adriano Di Marti. It is made from nopal cactus which is abundantly available in Mexico and requires no water or chemicals to grow! This material is durable and compares in elasticity, feel and quality to real leather.
But we have to keep in mind, that these materials are relatively new innovations and while being very promising alternatives to real or all synthetic leather they still have a few challenges and need further development. Some of them are not fully or at all bio-degradable. Some still need to use synthetic coating and glues to make it look and feel like leather which means they still require nonrenewable resources.
NEXT GENERATION BIO MATERIALS:
The industry continues to innovate and work on other more sustainable and more durable solutions. Here are a few more examples of what the future leather alternatives might look like:
- Mirum – a truly “vegan” and biodegradable material created by a tech start-up Natural Fiber Welding, which is considered to be a real disruptor in the synthetic high performance textile production and focusing on creating materials for circular economy. Mirum is plant-based leather made from natural ingredients such as waste cork, hemp, coconut and vegetable oil, contains no petroleum based plastics and does not require any water in the making or finishing process! It is also designed to be re-purposed into new materials or becoming soil nutrient thus making it completely circular! It is expected to be commercially available very soon.
- Mylo – fully biodegradable mushroom-based leather created by an innovative material solutions company Bolt Threads. Using mushroom or more precisely “mycelium” – basically tiny threads of mushroom roots – is an increasingly popular process that various companies are researching and investing into right now. This material can be grown in a lab in a matter of weeks or even days instead of years that takes to make leather from animal hides. It is claimed to be carbon negative, and can be created into a customizable texture, size, and shape, therefore making it potentially a zero-waste process. Stella McCartney was the first designer to test Mylo leather and made a prototype of her iconic Falabella bag:
- Zoa is a bio-fabricated leather material created from lab grown proteins by a company called Modern Meadow. It basically bio-engineers yeast to spit out collagen, which is then molded into a material that is imprinted, tanned and dyed to create a completely animal-free leather! It can also be made to particular brand’s specifications like thickness, texture, colour and stretch, and it would be comparable in price to luxury leather. This innovation is the first step into the future of the bio-fabrications age!
FISH SKIN LEATHER:
Fish skin leather is considered much more sustainable than animal leather. It actually looks like snake skin so it is often used in luxury market instead of exotic skins. It uses waste from food production and vegetable dyes, has far less carbon emissions and doesn’t cause deforestation compared to animal leather. Two biggest production centers for fish leather are Iceland (using salmon, cod, perch etc.) and Brazilian Amazon (pirarucu fish). Companies like Atlantic Leather and Nova Kaeru offer an amazing range of fish skin leathers and operate on high environmental standards like green energy, vegetable dying and sustainably managed fish farming. Nova Kaeru is a major advocate for the Amazon preservation and fights against deforestation.
As you probably already know, most of the “vegan leather” is made of synthetics like PU (polyurethane) and PVC(polyvinyl chloride) which are basically plastics. Largely used by fast fashion brands, they are inexpensive to produce and can mimic virtually any kind of real leather texture and any color imaginable. Technically PU leather has a lesser environmental impact than cow leather in term of GHG emissions, water and land pollution and deforestation. However being “plastic” it still has a significant negative impact: like high energy and water consumption, use of nonrenewable resources (petroleum) and microplastics pollution. It is also not as durable as real leather, therefore it doesn’t take long before it ends up in landfill. It can’t be recycled and most importantly it doesn’t biodegrade! PVC – often used in transparent vinyl accessories – is actually very toxic. Greenpeace literally calls it the “single most environmentally damaging of all plastics”. Many brands especially luxury are moving away from using PVC. More and more brands also use more sustainable materials for PU leather fabric backing instead of polyester to reduce its overall negative impact. My favorite designer Stella McCartney for examples uses recycled polyester or organic cotton to create her Alter-nappa material.
And finally we are back to where we started. The two big positives of real leather is that it is very durable so it will last and wear for a quite long time – sometimes decades! It is also biodegradable so, if produced without toxic chemicals and metals, it can return to earth and decompose without any harm to the environment. But as we learned in part one the way leather industry is working today does rather more harm than good. And the reality is that meat production as we know it won’t stop or change overnight, therefore the production of leather won’t stop either. There is certainly an urgent need to significantly reduce the consumption of meat and change the industrial farming towards a more humane and regenerative system. But I’m afraid, it will take some time before we see major improvements. So if you still chose to use real leather, then you should consider these factors:
- Recycled leather – there is a growing number of companies and brands realizing that there is tremendous value in the leather production off-cuts. Did you know that an estimated 20%-30% of skins actually go to waste due to naturally uneven shapes and blemishes on animal hides? So why not use them to make new products or recycle into new materials? Post-consumer waste can also be used instead of going to landfill. The process of creating recycled leather uses 90% less water and produces zero material waste. Companies like RecycLeather for example uses cut-offs from industrial gloves manufacturing, recycles them into new material and makes new cool and durable leathergoods! In 2017 The Burberry Foundation partnered with a sustainable brand Elvis & Kresse to help transform almost 120 tonnes of Burberry production cut-offs into new products!
- Responsible leather production – more and more leather manufacturers and brands are engaging in responsible and transparent leather production – from farming, to tanning, to finishing processes. As Veja (one of the most transparent fashion brands in my view) points it out in their brand story: “(we) focus on two major ways of improving leather production chain: traceability and chemical transparency. We know where it comes from and what’s in it”. 1/3 of their sneakers are actually 100% vegan, but the other 2/3 are made with leather that comes from organic farming where cattle is fed only on native vegetation. Their tanneries are audited and certified Gold by Leather Working Group. Kering – French luxury conglomerate and the owner of brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Botegga Veneta – is collaborating with The Savory Institute and engaging in regenerative farming and agriculture. According to many scientists, this might be the only solution to reduce the environmental impact of industrial farming and agriculture. Regenerative agriculture can increase biodiversity, improve soil fertility, restore watersheds and enhance the ecosystem of the farm. Animals will be re-integrated into a more natural habitats and help regenerate soils. These practices include silverposturing, grass feeding livestock, holistically managed grazing, etc. It will help transform our currently destructive and cruel industrial farming into a more compassionate one that treats animals well and restores our environment.
So… the choice is yours! There is no one right answer here, but certainly plenty of options to choose from if you are looking for leather alternatives. If you do continue to buy leather, then the least you can do is demand more information and transparency from the brands you love about the provenance of their leather products. Buy second hand leather (especially easy for jackets, handbags and accessories!) – it reduces the demand for more new real leather production and keeps these items in circulation for longer. Buy from those brands who truly care and enforce animal welfare standards and transparency on their suppliers, work with Fairtrade certified farmers and provide decent wages to their workers, use vegetable or certified chrome tanning processes, and overall strive for a cleaner future of leather industry.