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Vegan leather made from mushrooms. | Photo source Bolt Threads

Pros and Cons: Vegan leather

Fashion & Beauty

The pros and cons vary depending on what materials are used and there is a wide variety, from pineapples to plastic.

The vegan lifestyle has become much more popular, driven by concerns over both animal welfare and climate change. Many vegans, in addition to not eating any animal products, also do not wear any clothing made from any part of an animal. Leather, made from animal hides, is not a vegan product. Some non-vegans also shy away from leather, due to the chemicals used in tanning and dyeing. Yet, leather is a versatile and durable part of many clothing items, from shoes and bags to jackets and belts. 

The pros and cons of vegan leathers vary depending on what materials are used and there is a wide variety, from pineapples to plastic. Here, we will take a look at the pros and cons of some of the different types of vegan leathers.

Paper

Yes, that’s right, paper. Speciality papers like washi, a paper made from the bark of the Japanese Kozo tree (a relative of the mulberry), can be tightly woven to form a soft and flexible product, often used in handbags. The Kozo is a fast-growing and relatively sustainable tree, and washi can be both soft and flexible. It can also be laminated to make it waterproof. One drawback of paper fabrics is that they are not as durable as leather, and wear out relatively quickly. The lamination process also uses plastic materials and Washi products can be expensive.

Rubber

This may seem like an odd choice, as synthetic rubber is made from petroleum products and the manufacture of both synthetic and natural rubber requires the use of chemicals. However, some recycled rubber, such as old inner tubes, can be used to make products like bags and luggage. Recycling rubber prevents it from clogging up landfills, and the material is very durable and naturally water-resistant. However, once the bags are thrown out, the rubber still ends up in the landfill, so this does not really stop the problem of waste, even if it is vegan.

Polyurethane treated fabric

The most common way to make fake leather is to apply a polyurethane coating to a base material such as polyester, nylon or cotton. The newly laminated surface can be treated, usually by running a textured roller over it, to emulate the grain of animal leather. Good quality polyurethane leather is resilient, flexible and durable, but it is inexpensive to make. Moreover, polyurethane is derived from petrochemicals and it contains isocyanates, which are known respiratory toxins. An alternative is to treat the material with vegetable oils. This uses fewer chemicals and creates more breathable leather.

Plant leathers

Researchers have developed ways to turn a wide variety of plant materials into leather substitutes. Muskin is a material made from mushroom skins which feel like suede, and is durable, breathable and has antibacterial properties. It is tanned using an all-natural, non-chemical process. Mylo, from Bolt Threads, is made from lab-grown mycelium, the network of thread-like cells that make up mushrooms. Piñatex is a material made from discarded pineapple leaves. Orange peels, banana skins, apples, soy, coconut and even coffee grounds have also been turned into leathers.

Barkcloth is another alternative. This is an ancient textile, traditionally used in the South Pacific and in parts of Africa. The bark is harvested from different trees, then pounded into fibres and dried to form a cloth. The trees are not killed in the process and the cloth can be treated to make it longer-lasting.

A big advantage of plant leathers, or pleather, is that they completely decompose and in most cases without leaving any chemicals or plastic microbeads behind. However, most of the plant leathers are difficult to make in large quantities and can be expensive to produce. They are also not as durable as real leather.

Sewable Slate

Yes, rocks can be worn as clothing. Italian alternate leather manufacturer Villani Leonello has developed a way to slice slate into wafer-thin sheets, backed with a fleece made of cellulose fibres. The resulting leather is ultra-flexible, weather-resistant and can be cut and sewn like cloth. Over time, the slate becomes naturally worn to give the impression of aged leather. It is expensive to make, so is best used for items like bags, belts and luggage.

Lab-grown leather

At Springwise, we have recently covered innovations in bio-engineered leathers where researchers use micro-organisms like bacteria and fungi to grow clothing. The micro-organisms are placed in culture and grow a fibrous ‘bio-leather’. The material can be cut and sewn like leather, but can also be grown in clothing-shaped moulds. This allows it to produce nearly-complete pieces of clothing without the need for factory assembly and without generating excess waste material. Cost is a major drawback for this type of leather, and for the moment, it can only be manufactured in relatively small amounts. 

There is clearly no shortage of ideas when it comes to finding substitutes for animal leather. At the moment, the disadvantages of high cost and lack of scalability are a stumbling block to their widespread use. However, these are likely to be overcome in the near future, as more and more people are attracted to these materials by the advantages of sustainable, environmentally-friendly and cruelty-free products.