Animal-free leather has come a long way since the ‘pleather’ of yesteryear.
These new materials are enhancing the overall durability, quality, and sustainability of vegan leathers, gradually helping the category emerge as a major disruptor to traditional animal leather producers. And as the luxury fashion market gives fur the cold shoulder with brands like Chanel, Prada, and Gucci all officially fur-free, the spotlight on luxury vegan leather will only intensify—particularly in the wake of new research indicating that vegan leather as a category has an environmental footprint that is just one-third of that of animal leather (Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group).
In the search for truly luxurious and sustainable non-animal leather, three categories stand out: silicone-based leather, plant-based leather, and lab-grown leather. All—and particularly the last category—are fairly nascent and will benefit from further scaling, but together they signal a promising pivot towards a more sustainable and ethical future for the fashion industry.
1. Silicone-Based Leather
Spearheaded by the Poland-based designer, Alexandra K, silicone-based “Freedom Leather” first hit the fashion scene a few years ago. While the texture does not feel identical to leather, it has a smooth and supple feel that has similar qualities to buttery soft lambskin—sans lamb.
The material also has a couple of key environmental advantages:
- Ocean-friendly: Derived from silica, which is found in sand, it’s significantly more ocean-friendly than plastic, and is non-toxic to aquatic and soil organisms.
- Less resource intensive than plastic: The production requires less water and electricity and fewer raw materials when compared to plastic-based leathers.
- Non-toxic: Silicone is also non-petroleum-based and does not contain chlorine, volatile organic compounds (VOC), or estrogen-mimicking chemicals like BPA found in some plastics.
- Recyclable: Silicone is recyclable, though not biodegradable.
From a product quality perspective, silicone-based leathers do have some considerable advantages over plastic-based leathers. Silicone is an impressively durable material—hence its usage in cooking containers that can go in both the oven and freezer. In addition to its temperature durability, it’s also resistant to cracking and wear, stains, and UV-damage. While you need to be particularly cautious with the storage of silicone-based bags (it’s fairly elastic and you want to avoid stretching it), silicon-based products can match and even exceed the lifespan of animal-based leathers. Standout bags in this category include Alexandra K’s 1.5 Maxi Tote and her 1.6 Maxi Tote.
2. Fruit and Vegetable Based Leather
Plant-based leather is still a niche category, but one whose growth is being rapidly accelerated by large global brands like H&M, Hugo Boss, and Volkswagen seeking to establish themselves as early adopters. These leathers—the most common being Pineapple (Pinatex) and Apple Leather—are created using discarded byproducts of the respective fruit, facilitating an additional income stream for harvesters and reducing food waste. There are a wide range of fruits and vegetables being used for this purpose, but three have emerged as the most developed (and promising) category entrants:
- Apple Leather
Apple Leather is produced from the leftovers of harvested apples—the seeds, cores and peel. It is 100% biodegradable, highly durable, UV-resistant, and—of the plant-based leathers I have felt—it is the most similar to animal leather with a soft, rich texture. As production scales (right now there are only a few small-scale producers), I expect this will be one of the most successful leather alternatives. And with brands like Volkswagen bringing use of the material into the limelight, we’re bound to see a wide range of brands and categories start utilizing the material. Personally, this is my favorite of the plant based leathers I’ve seen—both because of its durability and its suppleness.
- Pineapple-based leather (Pinatex)
Pinatex is the most well known form of plant-based leather. Derived from the leftover leaves of the pineapple plant, Pinatex removes waste from the pineapple harvesting process. The textile has leather-like qualities, but is slightly rougher, giving it a weathered vintage appeal that’s well suited for watches, boots, and other accessories seeking a ‘hardy’ aesthetic . Pinatex is not yet biodegradable due to the coating on the material, but the company who produces it, Ananas Anam, is working on changing this in the near future.
- Mushroom leather (Mylo)
Developed by textile startup, Bolt Threads, “Mylo” is a soft leather-like material made out of mycleium, the underground root structure of mushrooms. It takes just days to produce—compared to the years required for the end-to-end production of animal leather—and is described by Bolt Threads as strong and abrasion resistant. The company is able to control for properties like thickness and shape, and can optimize these qualities based on the intended usage of the fabric. Unlike Pinatex and Apple Leather, Mylo is not created from waste product—but the material is completely biodegradable and non-toxic. Mylo hasn’t hit the market quite yet, so I can’t personally vouch for its texture, but if Stella McCartney’s approval means anything (she crafted a sample of her famous Falabella bag using Mylo), it’s likely to become an emerging front-runner in the ethical fashion space.
3. Lab Grown Leather
Lab grown leather or ‘bio leather’—genuine animal leather grown in a lab using cells from a skin biopsy—is on the very near horizon. Coined as ‘Zoa’ by its creator, Brooklyn-based startup Modern Meadow, this sci-fi-esque textile is backed by major investors including Facebook Chairman, Mark Zuckerberg, and Hong Kong’s wealthiest man, Li Ka-Shing. The material is identical to standard animal leather, but the controlled environment of its production allows for customized qualities (size, color, thickness, texture). And, because it doesn’t require large scale animal agriculture, its footprint is minimal compared to that of animal leather. Modern Meadow is in the process of scaling up production, at which point the material will debut across a wide range of industries.
A future where the textiles industry is less dependant on livestock no doubt benefits the billions of non-human animals used for their hides each year. But that’s just one of the many benefits. A future where we use discarded apples to create fabric means a future with less waste. After all, 45% of fruits and vegetables are unused and discarded. A future where we use a simple skin biopsy in lieu of an entire cow to create a textile means a future where less land is needed for grazeland. After all, 26% of land is used for livestock grazing. And a future where we no longer need to use the dangerous chemicals required to tan animal skin into leather means a future where fewer workers are exposed to carcinogens and other toxins. After all, tannery works have double the risk of morbidity compared to non-tannery workers. The non-animal leather industry may be nascent. It may be an industry that for now largely caters to the vegheads and veg-curious of the world. And it may be one that isn’t yet featured in the window displays of Saks Fifth Avenue or Bergdorffs. But in a climate defined by greater and greater scrutiny of the human, environmental, and animal suffering behind the polished photographs next to our “Add to Cart” buttons, I have a feeling that’s all soon about to change.