Plant Based Leather: Green Is the New Black When It Comes to Vegan Leather
The debate between animal leather and vegan leather alternatives is a fierce one. The traditional leather industry is fraught with issues, but vegan leather is typically plastic-based which comes with its own set of problems. So what is a person to do who wants to have their sustainable leather and use it too?
Luckily for us, intrepid entrepreneurs have been brainstorming some truly innovative plant based leather alternatives. We run through some of the most exciting ones here.
Why You Should be Excited About Plant Leather
Faux leather is not a new concept. The first alternative leather was invented in the 19th Century, and since then, the vegan leather industry has seen all kinds of development as the world experimented with a variety of synthetic derivatives.
Where these typically plastic-based vegan leathers leave many environmentally-friendly fashionistas wanting, plant based leather offers a new world of promise.
Leather made from plants? That’s right, these vegetable leather solutions run the gamut of plant-based materials from mushroom, pineapple and corn, to banana, apple, cactus, green tea, coffee grounds, coconut water and more; many even make use of agricultural waste, a true win-win!
Plant leather ticks off a lot of boxes: cruelty-free, climate-friendly and low-impact. Some vegetable leathers are also as durable as animal leather, while being attractive and surprisingly leather-like in feel and appearance.
Plant Leather May Have A:
>40x lower carbon impact than traditional leather
>17x lower carbon impact than synthetic vegan leather
Will these more eco friendly vegan leather alternatives replace “real” leather? Probably not, but we predict that one day, they could give animal-based leather a real run for its money.
Mycelium leather – a leather-like material made from mushrooms – is one of the hottest options on the plant-based leather scene. The mycelium is the underground root structure of a fungal colony (i.e., mushrooms) which are like tiny threads that spread widely through the soil under the forest floor.
Mushroom leather is grown from mycelial cells which are specially cultivated to result in a supple and robust leather alternative. It can be bred quickly and efficiently in different shapes, sizes and widths, substantially cutting down the production time compared to traditional leather.
Mycelium leather has been popularized by Italian textile company Grado Zero Espace who have been producing it under the brand name Muskin. Not only is this leather made from plants, but Grado Zero uses all natural products during the manufacture of Muskin.
It’s actually a real sustainability star. As a model example for the circular economy, the corn cobs, wood chips and straw by-products of manufacture can be mixed with mushroom spawn to grow more mycelium. Other waste products generated can be reused as an organic crop fertilizer, or for beekeeper’s smoke.
Muskin is produced using a specific type of non-edible mushroom called Phellinus ellipsoideus. It is native to subtropical forests where it is considered a pest for feeding on certain tree trunks, causing them to rot. This is another plus for mycelium leather – finding solutions for not one but two ecological problems.
The end result is a surprisingly suede-like leather that is durable, water-repellent and lightweight. “Fungi fashion” (the new buzz word for mycelium leather) is also soft enough to be worn against the skin without causing irritation (no surprise there since mushrooms are a key ingredient in some ancient Chinese skin remedies!)
In addition to Grado Zero, German brand nat-2™ produces their own mushroom-based vegetable leather. It similarly uses a parasitic fungus, making it another environmental win-win. Unlike Muskin, nat-2™ combines mycelium leather with organic cotton and recycled water bottles to produce their faux leather shoes.
Another popular plant based leather alternative is Piñatex (also known by the anglicized name, Pinatex) a plant-based leather made out of pineapple leaf fibres. One of the great things about pineapple leather is that it makes use of what would otherwise be an agricultural waste product.
First designed by Dr Carmen Hijosa and manufactured under the brand name, Ananas Anam, pineapple leather supports farming communities in the Philippines by providing extra income for materials that they previously just threw away.
Pinatex also follows a circular economy model and cradle to cradle principles. This means that their product was designed with its full lifecycle in mind – from cradle to cradle. And just like Muskin, this vegetable leather is also killing two birds with one stone, by producing a more sustainable leather alternative out of an industry byproduct that would otherwise just go to waste.
How it works: The discarded pineapple leaves left in the fields following the pineapple harvest are collected and the long fibres extracted from them. These fibres are then washed, purified and dried – often in the sun. The resulting fluff-like pineapple leaf fibre is mixed with a corn-based polylactic acid and transformed through mechanical processes into a non-woven mesh. A resin top coating gives it additional strength, durability and water resistance, and colour is added using GOTS certified organic pigments.
The German fashion label Hugo Boss was one of the earlier brands to launch shoes made of Pinatex, part of its collection of responsible designs with low environmental impact. Other brands working with Piñatex include Maravillas, Portuguese shoe brand Nae, and Altiir, a popular Italian fashion brand with a line of custom pineapple leather jackets.
Nova Milan is another fashion-forward company making vegetable leather based on discarded pineapple leaves and other agricultural waste. Based in Costa Rica, they claim to be the “first full supply chain ecosystem creating petroleum-free, plant based vegan leather at scale,” and it’s their mission to turn Costa Rica into the world leader of the emerging plant based leather economy.
They just might do it, too. Costa Rica is the world’s largest exporter of pineapples, leaving behind a lot of plant fibre waste – up to 5 million tonnes per year! – that could be used to make vegan leather. Any plant material not used to make leather gets turned into fuel or natural fertilizers, which they donate to participating farmers.
And like other plant leathers, Nova Milan’s vegan alternative leather is 100% biodegradable.
Desserto is another big name in the emerging field of leather made from plants. The Mexican brand has pioneered a way of making eco friendly leather made from prickly pear cactus. They even picked up a recent award jointly given by the University of Oxford and PETA!
Desserto leather is another sustainability winner, too, employing less carbon-intensive practices and generating less waste during the production process than real leather.
Desserto cactus leather offers a whole host of benefits for the environment, from enriching the soil and increasing biodiversity to saving water (very important in the desert!) and energy. Their afforestation program (planting prickly pear cactus) also reverts land use change, one of the main drivers of terrestrial CO₂ emissions and soil degradation.
Cacti are left to grow and regenerate, so material can be harvested continually from the same plant, and no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used. The harvested plant matter is also dried in a solarium – not in energy-sucking dryers – significantly reducing their carbon footprint.
American fashion brand Fossil is one of the early adopters of Desserto leather, having just launched their stylish line of cactus leather tote bags.
Apple leather is the plant leather of choice for funky Paris-based brand Good Guys Don’t Wear Leather. At GG, they take vegan fashion very seriously, and in their opinion, apple leather is where it’s at. According to them, apple leather looks good, wears well and meets their high standards for sustainability.
It is another Italian-based company that is behind this vegetable leather alternative. It goes by the name AppleSkin™ and also makes use of a food waste product – a mushy pulp left over from industrial-scale apple juicing. AppleSkin™ leather is not 100% plant-based, though; it’s only about 20-30% apple waste, mixed with polyester. The manufacturers are, however, working on a version that uses recycled polyester, which they hope to launch in 2026.
More Emerging Plant Based Alternatives
Kerala-based eco fashion brand Malai is also turning waste into wealth working with waste coconut, banana stem, sisal fibre, hemp fibre and coconut water to produce a synthetic leather. Not only does this reduce waste from the coconut industry, but the coconut leather itself can decompose in less than 150 days.
One of the most intriguing of all the plant based leathers is leaf leather which uses traditional Thai production methods. To make leaf leather, people harvest fallen teak leaves, soak them in water and then leave them to dry. The soaked and dried teak leaves are then arranged in large sheets which results in a sturdy and waterproof leather-like product.
Though not strictly-speaking plant-based, bio leather is worthy of a mention for its out-of-the-box thinking. The very forward-thinking company Modern Meadow has come up with a new biofabricated leather alternative which they call Zoa™.
Made from collagen, “nature’s essential protein,” the unique thing about this imitation leather is that it is completely lab-grown. Their biofabricated leather doesn’t use any materials sourced in nature – plant-based or animal-based – and no toxic chemicals, either. As a result, it is extremely versatile. As they describe it:
“Able to be any density. Hold to any mold. Create any shape. Take on any texture. Combine with any other material. Be any size, seamlessly.”
Unsurprisingly, bio leather is still in the very early concept stage, and is not yet being used by any brands.
Where to Buy Plant Based Leather
When it comes to making leather from plants, there is so much innovation – it’s almost too hard to keep up! Below is just a taste of some of the wide-ranging vegetable leathers being developed and tested out by both big and small brands alike, from cork, grape, bark, leaf and paper-based leather alternatives.
Fashion Accessories, Clothing & Shoes
Many global brands such as H&M, Hugo Boss and Volkswagen are early adopters of plant-based leather, actively investing in research and development of new materials and testing them out in new products.
Adidas and Nike have both launched vegan mushroom leather based sneakers, while others like Lululemon and designer Stella McCartney have teamed up with biotechnology start-up Bolt threads to produce mycelium leather products in 2021.
H&M released a new collection of handbags and boots made from award-winning vegan grape leather, a plant based leather made using grape waste produced by the winemaking industry.
BARK & LEAF creates women’s luxury handbags that are made from lotus leaf, rain-tree leaf, banana bark, and bamboo leaves.
Fiquetex makes plant-based leather products from fique plant fibres, and was another winner of the awards given out by Oxford and PETA.
Toronto-based online shop Corkycoo released a new cork leather collection just in time Valentine’s day this year. What a way to say “I love you” to the planet!
Happy-Genie has a new collection of apple leather products.
Even flower waste is being using to produce a leather-like material which is yet to be commercially available.
Luxury Car Upholstery Leather Made from Plants
Many other brands, including Tesla, Renault Twizy and Volvo, have launched vegan-friendly cars, ditching animal leather completely in favour of plant-based alternatives.
The Verdict Is In: Chic, Climate-Friendly Sustainable Plant Based Leather
Clearly, vegetable leather is an innovative new realm in the faux leather industry, with heaps of potential and lots to get excited about. If there is a downside, it’s that it is so hard to get these ideas off the ground. Pineapple leather’s journey started way back in the 1990s, but brands are only just starting to use the leather alternative in their products. Mycelium leather can only currently be produced in small quantities, making it hard for brands to incorporate it into their designs on a large scale.
But even with all these ifs, ands or buts, plant based leather has pretty extraordinary potential to contribute to a climate-friendly, cruelty-free sustainable fashion industry. It just goes to show what you can do when innovation is paired with planet-loving ambition!
About the Author
Vidya is an environmental lawyer from India, with special interests in biodiversity, climate change and sustainability issues. She is a fellow at the Guarini Center, NYU after graduating as a Vanderbilt scholar with a masters in environmental law at the NYU law school. Previously, she advised the UNDP, India, the Indian Ministry of Environment and worked with IDLO, Governments of Namibia and Vietnam on interesting environmental legal and policy issues. She enjoys travelling, bird watching and wildlife photography. In her free time, you can find her playing at the beach or convincing her friends to go vegan.