As veganism and climate-conscious consumerism continue to gain traction, there is a growing interest in finding plant-based, cruelty-free, and low carbon alternatives to traditional leather. In response, the fashion industry has witnessed numerous innovations over the last year, including the development of new materials such as those made from cactus leaves, grape seeds, and apple skin.
Some of these new materials are either fully recyclable or biodegradable/compostable, like “coconut leather” from Malai. This material is produced from organic bacterial cellulose, which is derived from waste coconut water that has been obtained during the harvesting of coconut flesh. The collected waste coconut water is utilised to feed the bacteria responsible for cellulose production. Once the fermentation process is complete, sheets of cellulose jelly are harvested and strengthened using natural fibres such as banana, sisal, and hemp, as well as resins and gum. The resulting material is certified vegan and biodegradable, and can have a matte, semi-glossy, or completely glossy finish depending on the type of water- or oil-based coatings used. The material is also available in various colours through the use of mordant-free natural dyes.
In addition to that there are other plant-based leather alternatives that are mixtures of natural materials and plastics (typically polyurethanes), which are usually attached to a cotton or polyester backing textile. These materials have many positive attributes, such as being more similar to animal leather compared to e.g. the biocomposite material made from coconut waste. They are durable, have a soft surface, and their look and feel is quite close to real leather. The materials are suitable for a wide range of applications, including handbags, wallets, shoes, and even car interiors. An example of four of different plant-based leather alternatives are Piñatex, Desserto, Appleskin and Vegea:
- Pineapple fibre is a versatile and sustainable material made from the leaves of the pineapple plant. These leaves are an agricultural byproduct of the food industry, and their use creates an additional and stable income for farming communities. Ananas Anam have developed a non-woven mesh made from pineapple fibres that forms the base of Piñatex. Since the pineapple fibres are obtained from agricultural waste, they have a low environmental impact compared to other textile crops. To produce a square meter of Piñatex, almost 500 leaves are needed, which correspond to an average of 16 pineapples. (→ All products made from Piñatex)
- Desserto is a Mexican company that produces a plant-based leather alternative made from nopal cactus leaves and polyurethane. The material is made from USDA certified cactus grown in an organic farming system in the mineral-rich region of Zacatecas, Mexico. For the production of the material, only mature leaves are cut without damaging the plant itself, which allows for repeat harvesting every 6-8 months. Cactus is a natural carbon sink, and only three leaves of cactus are needed to create one linear metre of Desserto. The finished material is durable, tear-resistant and soft. (→ All products made from Desserto)
- Nuuwaï, a German company, has created Appleskin, a leather-like material made from apple waste. The material is PETA-approved vegan and consists of 26% apple waste, 38% polyurethane, 20% polyester, and 16% cotton. The apple waste is dried, milled into a fine powder, mixed with polyurethane, and applied onto tear-resistant cotton fabric. The resulting material is long-lasting, water-resistant, and OEKO-TEX 100 certified. (→ All products made from Appleskin)
- Vegea, an Italian company, has developed an innovative process to create “wine leather”, using grape skin and seeds. This vegan material is manufactured with very little water and 70% renewable and recycled raw materials. The process involves extracting oil from the seeds, drying the grape marc, and combining it with water-based polyurethane to create a bio-based material, which is then coated onto organic cotton fabric. “Wine leather” is durable and versatile, and won the H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award in 2017. (→ All products made from "wine leather")
One of the biggest advantages is that these plant-based leather alternatives are using waste material to replace a certain amount of the plastic, rather than creating products made from 100% polyurethane. Being partially made from agricultural residue, their production generally has a lower environmental impact and supports local farmers who are able to gain new income streams.
The main disadvantage however is that due to the mixed material approach, these plant-based leather alternatives can neither be fully recycled, nor are they biodegradable. Companies like Nuuwaï are already working on a more sustainable solution of bio-based PU made from fermented biomass, but for now the materials are not yet fully circular.
Besides the ones mentioned above, there are also other great plant-based alternatives to animal leather, such as cork, banana fibre or teak leaves. Each of them has very unique characteristics and different advantages and disadvantages, which you can find out more about in our material library.