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Some companies are producing innovative plant-based alternatives to leather using a variety of sources, including plant and fungus fibres. With backing from major brands in place, mushroom and plant “leathers” could be set to go mainstream in 2021.
The term “leather” is used here as a reference to the qualities and characteristics of the material only. These are emerging materials for which no generic term exists and “leather” is used simply for comparison.
Why choose plant leather?
The need for a more environment-friendly form of textile production is undeniable. Many common production methods are severely detrimental to the environment and the long-term health of textile production workers.
The amount of textile waste produced globally each year is estimated to be about 92 million tons. Much of this waste is difficult or nearly impossible to recycle so will find its way to either an incinerator or landfill.
Large-scale production of textiles is also one of the biggest sources of pollution in the world, being responsible for 20% of global waste water, according to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Synthetic leathers have long been used as a cheaper alternative to animal-derived leather. Often items made of synthetic leather are neither as durable, long lasting or repairable as genuine leather, and have a much shorter life span.
Plastic leathers are produced by coating a layer of textile with a thin sheet of vinyl. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU) are the two most common coating materials used in artificial leathers. Both are petroleum based, so production is heavily reliant on the use of fossil fuels.
Why stop making genuine leather?
When leather is considered as a by-product of the meat industry, it could be argued that animal-derived leather products are more sustainable than plastic leathers. However, the large-scale farming of cattle has been increasingly linked to environmental degradation.
It is precisely because of this that more people are switching to plant-based diets and may also be looking for more environment-friendly alternatives to leather products.
A 2013 report from the UN states that 14.5% of human-induced global greenhouse gases are produced by livestock.
The leather tanning process is also a significant producer of toxic waste. There are non-toxic ways to tan leather, but the most commonly used process involves a chromium solution, which is a known human carcinogen.
If not correctly disposed of, tannery waste can have devastating effects on land and waterways. This is most likely to occur in poorer nations with less restrictions on the processing of industrial waste.
What are some alternatives to leather?
A new breed of environmentally conscious designers and startups are developing a host of leather alternatives from natural, non-toxic and renewable sources.
Here are a few leather alternatives, often created from plant and fungus origins, that we could be seeing in the marketplace very soon.
Bolt Threads is one of these companies and its “Mylo” mushroom-based leather is gaining support from the fashion and clothing industry.
The Mylo material, described by the company as “unleather,” is not produced from the mushroom itself, but from its fibrous root system. These roots are called mycelium, where the Mylo name is derived from.
The mycelium are grown on beds of sawdust and form a thick mat-like material, which can be processed, tanned and dyed to produce a leather-like material.
The company has teamed up with major brands, including Adidas, Stella McCartney, Kering and Lululemon, with the intention of developing its unleather products on a global scale. Mylo products should be available to purchase in 2021.
The California-based company MycoWorks has also developed a leather alternative from mushroom mycelium and calls it Reishi. The textile is grown in trays on a substrate of biomass. The material can be grown to specific shapes, making it low waste when compared to a pattern that is cut from animal hide.
The process of growing the material is also very quick when compared to the time it takes to grow leather from an animal. The average age that cows are slaughtered is about 18 months. Comparatively, these mycelium-based textiles can be grown in a few days.
In the case of MycoWorks’ Reishi textile, the processing of the material is undertaken by a traditional tannery that applies its knowledge to develop the feel, textures and properties of leather. The introduction of new materials such as these could provide a new avenue of business for the leather industry rather than seeking to replace it.
There are also leather alternatives being produced from fruit waste. Grapes, pineapple leaves and apple skins that come from the industrial production of wine and fruit juice are being used to create leather-like materials.
These often require a coating of polyurethane to waterproof them, so they are not entirely fossil fuel-free although the amount of PU applied is usually very low. They could still be considered a reasonably environment-friendly alternative to leather, as they make use of waste materials that might just end up in landfill.
A London-based startup, Ananas Anam, has developed a fabric that it calls Piñatex. Made from pineapple leaves that would otherwise be discarded, the fabric has been used in products by Hugo Boss, Svala and Bourgeois Boheme.
Other alternatives such as cork are 100% natural and can be made to replace leather in some instances. The cork material is produced from the bark of the cork tree that is dried, steamed and pressed.
After harvesting, the trees need at least nine years to regrow their bark, so it is certainly not a quick process.
As cork is a fairly traditional material, there are many brands already offering products made from cork. These often substitute leather that is directly used in handbags, wallets and purses. They are also being used in yoga mats, watches, furniture and flooring.
The more research that goes into developing these products, the more environment-friendly they can potentially become. An ideal product would be one that possesses all the desirable qualities of leather, can be manufactured at scale, is 100% biodegradable, and does not require the use of limited fossil fuels in its production.
The materials highlighted here are mostly still in their infancy. These solutions may not be entirely perfect, but the environment-first design ethos are a huge step in the right direction towards a more planet-friendly fashion industry.