Fungi to Fruit: The Innovative World of Vegan Leather
Furry friends donít belong in fashion and they certainly donít belong on our feet. Thatís why we here at Sustainable Jungle are so excited to find ethical shoe brands like NAE that are dipping their toes into the waters of vegan leather alternatives.
But not all vegan leathers are created equal, so itís important we also draw a distinction between standard vegan leather (usually plastic-based) and eco friendly vegan leather.
Traditional Vegan Leather: Saving Animals but Not the Planet
Vegan leather in general should be approached with some degree of suspicion, as it has some questionable sustainability specs. For years, the words ďvegan leatherĒ almost certainly meant the product was made of plastic, generally either Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) or Polyurethane (PU). While these options may spare the many animal lives that come as a cost to the leather industry, it doesnít address the environmental concerns like end-of-life outcomes or the carbon-intensive processes to make them.
PVC especially is chock full of phthalates and chemicals linked to developmental disorders, infertility, Type II diabetes, heart and liver disease, cancer, and disorders of the central nervous system. Unlike PU, which can at least be mechanically recycled, it can only be chemically recycled, which is almost as bad as letting it exist as waste forever.
Itís only recently that weíve seen true innovation to remedy this plastic leather problem, and brands like NAE (along with several other sustainable sneaker and shoe brands) are jumping at the opportunity to trade plastic for plants.
Currently, NAE uses three of the best vegan leathers available, all of which are eco friendly!
Pinatex and Cork: The Vegan Leather Superstars
First off, standard vegan leather is not necessarily made from virgin plastic these days. In NAEís case, their "vegan leather" is a microfibre blend of cotton, polyester, and nylon (all of which are recycled whenever possible). Better than PVC by a long shot!
Then we have cork, an old fabric but one thatís only somewhat recently made it as a mainstream leather replacement. Cork is an excellent material, not just because it gets supple and soft without adding a bunch of chemical plasticizers (just boil in water, flatten, and youíve got footwear-ready leather!), but because itís actually carbon negative. It not only has no negative impact on the environment but a positive one.
This is because cork oak trees, grown primarily in Portugal, are incredibly carbon consumptive trees: 14.7 tons of CO2per hectare on average! Itís also sustainably harvested through shaving the bark every 7 years, which not only doesnít harm the tree, but extends itís life by encouraging regeneration.
As a fabric, cork leather is waterproof, hypoallergenic, and fully compostable at the end of its life.
Finally, thereís piŮatex, a new plant-based leather thatís really taken the fashion world by storm. Made from pineapple leaf fibers, this durable fabric comes as a byproduct of the pineapple industry thatís normally thrown way or burned. Itís production requires no additional water or material inputs (though it is usually finished with a petroleum-based coating for added durability).
Any leftover leaf scraps from its production are used as fertilizer so nothing is wasted, and, according to NAE, ď[T]he company responsible are working with pineapple farmers to add a whole new income stream to their businesses.Ē
While those are the heavy hitters, vegan leather doesn't end there. In fact, those three are just the toe of the crazy innovations happening in the field of sustainable fabrics.
The New Kicks on the Block: Innovative Plant-Based Vegan Leathers
If you think turning pineapple leaves into leather is innovative, these next sustainable vegan leather options will really knock your socks off.
While few brands are using these currently, weíre just thinking of those as a couple of steps ahead of the rest. Just because the fashion and footwear industries havenít fully caught up to these leaders yet, doesnít mean we shouldnít be excited about what it means for the future.
Weíll start with one pretty similar to piŮatex: frutmat. Where piŮatex is pineapple leather, Frutmat (aka Pellemela) is apple leather, created by an Italian company out of apple cores and peels wasted by the apple processing industry. Weíre starting to see this fur-free fruit-based fabric in shoes and ethical handbags and purses alike.
Speaking of taking wasted byproducts and turning them into fabric, coffee leather is one of the newest plant leathers still in the early stages under green fashion designer Alice Genberg. If you couldnít guess, itís made from used coffee grounds, which means our morning caffeine addiction might actually be able to one day sustainably feed our shoe addiction. Sounds like a win-win.
Mirum is yet another plant leather crafted from a combination of various virgin and waste byproduct plants. It can be created from anything and everything, from coconut and vegetable oils to hemp or cork. All raw inputs are natural and the final product isnít coated in PU or PVC. According to its eponymously named creator Mirum, ďThe Future is Plants, Not Plastic.Ē
Recycling plants and other bio-based material into vegan leather is a big pro for the planet, and in the case of the next new fabric, itís also probiotic. SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) is a term that kombucha lovers will likely be familiar with; itís the live bacterial culture used to ferment tea into that bubbly fruity gut-healthy beverage we all love so much.
For those who havenít experimented with DIY kombucha brewing, SCOBY is just a mushy blob. If you soak it in a tea for weeks, it stays hydrated and yields another mass, but you can also lay it out flat and allow it to dry into a leather-like material.
Finally, letís put some more fungi in footwear (the good kind, that is). In fact, turning fungi into footwear can ironically limit enough bacteria proliferation making for an even healthier foot environment! Thatís why companies are turning mushrooms into leather, too. Currently, there are two mushroom leathers out there: MuSkin, suede made from Phellinus ellipsoideus mushroom caps, and MyloTM, made of the mycelium (root structure) of various mushrooms.
Mushroom leather can be produced without harmful solvents and the final product is totally biodegradable, but itís, unfortunately, a pretty costly process. Until it becomes more efficient, we might not see too many mushroom mary-janes.
Some new leathers donít come from anything that exists at all, like ZOA, by the biofabrication company Modern Meadow. This completely bioengineered stretch leather alternative is lab-grown out of collagen cells.
While many are still in their experimental pilot phases and thus not widely available, itís only a matter of time before we start seeing probiotics join the ranks of pineapples on more fabric content labels.
Final Thoughts on Innovative New Vegan Leathers
Once upon time hemp, modal and bamboo fabrics were the new kids on the block. Now bacterial blobs can become a new pair of to-die-for leather boots.
It seems there is no stopping this wild and wonderful world of sustainable and ethical fashion.
So, next time you decide to slide your feet into some eco friendly sandals, let your imagination run wild as you think about all the potential materials that might one day make up those shoes.
Now, itís up to us as consumers to promote even more exploration. After all, itís our buying power that ultimately gives the green light for eco friendly leather alternatives to become mainstream.