With an increasing number of people turning to veganism, vegan leather is naturally growing in popularity. The industry is predicted to reach nearly $90 billion by 2025. Plant-based living goes well beyond what is on the dinner plate, it extends into all areas of life – including fashion and home furnishings.
Vegan ‘leather’ has been around for many decades – first noted in the 1920’s. Since then, it has evolved and many different types have been invented as technologies have developed. It is an extremely broad category. Vegan leathers are not just plastic. Although the industry has been dominated by plastic-based materials, an increasing number of plant-based vegan alternatives are hitting the market.
Plastic-based leather is so common it has been given it’s own name. Once known as ‘pleather’, this word seems to have (thankfully) disappeared from our vocabulary. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU) are the most common plastic-based leathers.
PVC has been dubbed “the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics” by Greenpeace. It does not biodegrade – your PVC jacket will be on the planet a lot longer than you will. It will break into small pieces which, amongst other things, can be ingested by and cause harm to wildlife. Furthermore, industrial plants producing PVC release an array of toxic chemicals into the environment. One of which – dioxin – is regarded by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be the “one of the most toxic chemicals ever produced”. Quite a claim.
PU is another plastic-based leather. It is a lot more environmentally friendly than PVC. It does not release the same mix of toxic chemicals when being made. However, fossil fuels are used in its production – reducing its green credentials. It should be noted that PU leather is sometimes not 100% vegan. It can be combined with real leather – sometimes known as bi-cast or double-cast. Check before you buy.
However, not all vegan leather is made from plastic. Many options are available – some a bit more budget-friendly than others. And some more sustainable than others too. Unfortunately, plastic also makes an appearance in plant-based leather alternatives.
Cork fabric, also known as cork leather, is used widely for a variety of products from handbags to yoga mats. Whilst its softness and durability make it a hit with consumers, its green credentials are even more impressive. Cork oak trees do not need to be chopped down to produce cork – meaning they can be used for many, many years to harvest cork. Just the bark is needed, and it is skillfully removed to prevent damage to the tree. When the bark is regenerating it absorbs significant amounts of carbon dioxide. It even contributes to the fight against climate change!
Cork fabric can also contain an element of plastic – the cork has a backing material and the nature of this depends on the manufacturer. Some use pure cotton, whilst others may contain some plastic based materials.
Developed in Mexico and made from the leaves of the nopal cactus, cactus leather is one of the newest vegan leather innovations. In addition to being animal-friendly, it is also planet-friendly. The only water needed for these cacti to grow is rainwater – meaning it has a very small water footprint!
Made with a blend of pineapple leaf fiber and corn-based bioplastic PLA (polylactic acid), pineapple leather is another popular choice. If they had not been used to make leather the leaves would have been burned – releasing a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s a win-win. Reducing waste, reducing the carbon footprint and producing great products too!
Our old friend PU is sometimes used in the production of pineapple leather too. It is used as a coating, adding an element of plastic to the otherwise plant-based leather.
There are a couple of different ways to produce mushroom leather. One involves the harvesting and compressing the mycelium cells – the cells that make up the dense root system of the mushroom. Another method utilizes the mushroom cap.
Mushroom leathers make a highly sustainable animal leather alternative. They grow quickly and produce limited waste. However, mushroom leather is unfortunately not waterproof – a key attribute that consumers look for in some garments. To ensure that you can go outdoors on a rainy day in your mushroom leather threads, manufacturers have a added plastic to the outer lining. This means that the products are not fully biodegradable.
The bottom line
The most used vegan leather is made of plastics. However, more and more plant materials are being utilized to form plant-based leathers. The increasing awareness of plastic pollution – both during production and after use – have really pushed the industry to find new alternatives. And so far, they have delivered with plant-based options launched by both exclusive designers and high street chains alike. Some contain an element of plastic – however, this is massively reduced compared to PVC and PU alternatives.