It’s time to explore vegan leather! What is it made from? What does it feel like? Is it sustainable? I’ll be answering those questions and more in this deep-dive. This is a sister piece to my guide to sustainable leather, and builds on my guide to vegan fashion too. Let’s get into it!
What Is Vegan Leather?
Vegan leather is a catch-all term that refers to any leather-like textile. The phrase has steadily grown in popularity over the last decade, and echoes the growth in popularity of veganism and vegan fashion.
However, as the popularity of vegan leather has grown, so has the greenwashing. While there are good examples of vegan leathers that are more sustainable than leather, there are also bad ones, and I’ll go into that in a second. What’s important to note here is that vegan leather can mean many things, and it can be a misleading term (one that Portugal banned, as I first learned from The Mindful Step).
What Is Vegan Leather Made From?
In my guide to vegan fashion, I briefly covered vegan leather. Personally, I like to choose vegan leather for any first-hand purchases, but I have been burned by brands like Matt & Nat, who play up their ethical nature despite using not so great materials.
The main issue with vegan leather is that most are made from plastic, which is made from oil. Yes, the fossil fuel. I imagine that if you are choosing vegan leather, you care about our planet, animals and all. If so, oil probably isn’t on-brand for you. But with the handy term ‘vegan leather’, that can be hidden!
Here’s a list of vegan leathers that are almost entirely made from plastic:
- Elastane (aka Spandex or Lycra)
- Polyurethane (PU)
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
Despite this, not all vegan leather is entirely made from plastic. Nor are they all made equal. One of the biggest misconceptions around vegan leather is that it’s simply a fancy name for plastic. This infographic from Noa (@style.withasmile) provides some balance:
The key takeaway here is that most leathers – both vegan and non – are coated in plastic. This means the plastic argument doesn’t really wash when it comes to considering the sustainability of vegan leather vs. leather. It also means that leather, just like vegan leather, takes hundreds of years to biodegrade, due to its plastic coating and chemical treatments.
Carbon impact is where vegan leather edges ahead of leather. Luxury goods conglomerate Kering estimates the impact of vegan leather production can be up to a third lower than real leather. This is understandable – vegan leather doesn’t (usually) involve deforestation to make way for cattle farming, nor the rearing of animals. And of course, vegan leather doesn’t involve the killing of animals.
But the question remains: is there such a thing as sustainable vegan leather? The plastic issue still niggles at me, which is why I’ve compiled a list of innovative fashion textiles that hopefully show how vegan leather is phasing out plastic in favour of natural, plant-based materials…
9 Examples Of More Sustainable Vegan Leather Collections
1. Cactus Leather
One of the most exciting new vegan leathers around is Desserto, a vegan leather made from cactus. Despite being derived from prickly plants, this vegan leather is soft, supple, and applicable to leather goods big or small. Take my (gifted) Willow Tote from ASK Scandinavia. This bucket bag is the largest bag in my collection, and yet it’s soft, lightweight, and malleable. In my opinion, it feels so much better than other types of vegan leather.
The downside? Desserto is not plastic-free, and allegedly contains 65% PU, while only 30% cactus (by weight). This also means it’s not entirely biodegradable.
2. Pineapple Leather
Another exotic plant that’s making over the vegan leather industry is pineapple. Enter, Piñatex! This form of vegan leather is made from waste pineapple leaves, sourced in the Philippines and finished in Spain and Italy. It creates a thicker, heavier-feeling textile that even comes with its own ‘grain’. Piñatex was one of the first plant-based vegan leathers on the scene, and it’s probably one you’re already familiar with.
I’ve used a piñatex coin purse for a number of years now, found at NID, a sustainable fashion and homewares store focusing on natural materials and timeless design. The purse has held its shape and colour over this time, making it a true contender as a leather alternative.
However, Piñatex is not totally biodegradable and it does contain plastic. It’s not clear what the full composition is, but on their FAQ page, they state “We have optimised the maximum amount of bio-based PU we can use while still ensuring longevity to our materials.”
3. Mycelium (Mushroom) Leather
Ok, let’s get this straight: mycelium is a type of fungi, not mushroom. Despite this, I can’t help but think of it as mushroom leather! This soft yet hard-wearing vegan leather is being pioneered by two manufacturers: Mylo and MycoWorks. Their products have been seen in collections by Stella McCartney and Hermes respectively. It seems that mushroom leather has been adopted by luxury fashion more than any other vegan leather, and with Kering investing in Mylo, more is likely to come.
Guess what though? Mylo isn’t plastic-free, and I’m doubtful about MycoWorks too. Having worked with Mylo a few years ago, I know how important it is to not overstate the material’s biodegradable base, but I’m still not sure what its true composition is.
4. Corn Leather
Stepping onto the scene as a minor contender is corn leather. I first came across this after Veja created a limited edition of its Campo trainers using corn waste rather than leather. I was stoked! Finally, my favourite sneaker brand is using a material that I can purchase without going against my values! Then, they let the world know that they couldn’t continue using corn, due to issues with scaling, as well as a lack of transparency in the bio-plastic industry. In particular, they are concerned with the use of GMO crops, which is reasonable.
Despite this, corn leather can be found in boutique collections, such as Mashu’s Philippa bags*. These iconic baguette bags pair 73% bio based mass content from non GMO corn crops with 27% recycled polyester, making them a real-life example of sustainable vegan leather.
5. Grape Leather
One such grape leather manufacturer is Vegea. For their vegan leather offering, V-Textile, they too don’t declare the use of plastic, but do say “VEGEA is a vegan coated fabric” which indicates the presence of plastic. It leaves me wondering why so many of these manufacturers don’t admit the plastic element of their textiles – the lack of transparency leaves me feeling uncomfortable.
Alongside Mashu, I’ve found indie bag brand Under Her Eyes innovating with grape leather from Planet of the Grapes. Having met both founders earlier this year, I’m excited to see this partnership grow!
While we’re on the subject of the lack of transparency around plant leather… let’s talk about Mirum.
Mirum could be a potentially ground-breaking form of sustainable vegan leather. Their claim? Their vegan leather is a “climate-friendly, plastic-free option”. And there’s more: at the end of its life, it “can be recycled into new MIRUM® or ground up and returned to the earth”. This is huge if true – it’s not just a plastic-free vegan leather, but it’s also circular.
The issue is, NFW, the material science company that manufactures Mirum, is keeping quiet about the source of its revolutionary new textile. They simply say it’s made from ‘Natural Materials’. But the word natural has no legal meaning…
7. Leaf Leather
If you’re looking for a plant-based vegan leather that really looks the part, Thamon‘s leaf leather collection is the answer. While piñatex is also made from leaves, this teak leaf leather really showcases its natural texture – take this forest green box crossbody bag.
Unlike other vegan leather brands in this list, Thamon is transparent about the manufacturing process of its leaf leather, although I do wonder the composition of the ‘fabric sheet’ that the leaves are glued to before being assembled into bags. Considering they do not proclaim to be plastic free, I assume some plastic is involved.
8. Cork Leather
From tree leaves to tree bark… Next up is cork leather. Blackwood is the brand that springs to mind when I think about sustainable vegan leather goods made from cork, and Portuguese Treasures also create sustainable homewares from cork. Having visited a cork growing region of Portugal in 2016, I’ve seen first-hand how well looked after these trees are (and for good reason – the cork bark takes nine years to regrow after harvesting!)
However, when it comes to the composition of Blackwood’s bags, purses, and accessories, it’s hard to say what other materials are used. It’s very likely to be plastic, considering they aren’t touting that they’re plastic free, but I do love how the cork looks and feels.
9. Bacteria Leather
Finally, let’s explore the wild and wonderful world of bacterial leather. (The image I’ve shared is actually a photo I took of the 3.1 Phillip Lim X Charlotte McCurdy dress made with algae sequins, another innovative leather-like material).
Bacterial leather, also known as Celium, has been in the making for over six years, and is now making its way to being produced on an industrial scale. The bacteria grows off fruit waste, and requires no land clearing, making its carbon impact very low. It also does not use PVC or PU (although is not claiming to be plastic-free). The end result? A beautiful vegan leather being tried out by sustainable-thinking brands like GANNI. It could be a promising contender for the most sustainable vegan leather of the future.
So, Is There Such A Thing As Sustainable Vegan Leather?
After researching nine different types of more sustainable vegan leather textiles, my answer is: not yet. All but one of these materials are made using some form of plastic. This doesn’t make them any less of a good alternative to leather, especially considering most leathers also use plastic.
For the one vegan leather that claims to be plastic free (Mirum), I’m still not sold. It says it’s made of natural materials, but that just isn’t enough information to decide whether it’s a sustainable alternative or not. There are plenty of natural materials that are harmful to people, planet, and animals. And there’s no legal definition of what a natural material is. I’d like to know more before recommending it as the answer.
If you’ve got this far in my guide, I’d like to pose you this question: is it easier to consider the impact of our wardrobes, rather than individual items? Even then, it’s quite hard to calculate. Do you simply consider the carbon impact, as many brands are now doing? What about the longevity of our clothes? The circularity?
Just like your diet, your fashion choices are personal, and require some time deciding what best works for you. If you’re only considering your impact, my guide to sustainable leather may also be of interest, as well as my favourite places to shop second-hand. When it comes to sustainability, the most sustainable garment is the one already in your wardrobe, and then, perhaps, the ones in other people’s wardrobes. In any case – shop less, style more, and prioritise sustainability.