Good Enough To Eat? The Ultimate Guide To Plant Based Leather Alternatives

Pineapple plant based leather alternative

Good Enough To Eat? The Ultimate Guide To Plant Based Leather Alternatives

An age-old material that stands the test of time, it’s little wonder leather has become a permanent part of wardrobes all over the world. Yet, hidden behind loafers and biker jackets is a mix of environmental and ethical problems. But that doesn’t mean we need to give up leather altogether – now there are plant-based alternatives to leather that are just as glamorous as the ‘real’ thing’.

The Environmental Impact Of Leather

Every minute a soccer pitch sized area is cleared in the Amazon Forest to make space for grazing land for cattle. Cattle farming, growing livestock to sell, is a significant contributor to deforestation. It’s responsible for around 60% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, mainly from methane and ammonia gas the animals produce. 
The entire life-cycle of leather production, from raising the animals to the finishing process (called leather tanning), has a negative environmental impact. Add the effects of Climate Change (rising temperatures, water levels and more droughts), and it’s clear why it’s essential to make changes that will slow this process down.  
For more on leather’s environmental impacts, see Is Leather Bad for the Environment: The Unsustainable Truth. 

The Animal Leather Industry

Cattle farming for leather
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
There’s also a common misconception that real leather is a byproduct of the meat industry, and if unused, will create more waste.
In reality, millions of animals are bred specifically for the leather industry to satisfy our sartorial desires every year. In 2020, the leather industry was worth $US241 billion. Crazy! And a lot of leather products come from young calves that are killed for their soft and unmarked skin.
Apart from the carbon footprint and environmental damage, animals suffer physical and psychological abuse before being killed for their skin. For example, calves are often separated from their mother as soon as they are born and kept in unhygienic and cramped conditions. The animal-based leather industry lacks transparency and regulations, making it challenging to prove the exact environmental impact of leather, where the skin comes from, and how it’s made. 
Since the world’s appetite for leather is not slowing down, we think it’s time to find a replacement. 

Plant-Based Alternatives To Leather

Both people and brands want to create clothing that stands the test of time, looks fantastic and is also consciously made.
Kering, the parent company of luxury fashion brands such as Gucci and Balenciaga, recently announced a company-wide ban on fur from 2022 to align with current consumer demand for a more sustainable and ethical fashion industry.  
Recently, faux leather (also known as pleather or imitation leather) was considered the more ‘ethical’ replacement to animal skin, but derived from plastic and harmful chemicals; the production process of synthetic leather comes with its problems. It’s not as durable as animal leather, contains toxic chemicals, and has a significant environmental impact.
Enter – plant-based alternatives to leather; materials that feel as smooth as animal-derived leather, and are made from natural and raw materials like fruit leftovers, plants, food waste and even rocks. By combining science with nature, agricultural waste can turn into sustainable leather. 
Even British brand BEEN London recently announced a partnership with Biophilica, a tree leather manufacturer, to work on a compostable handbag made entirely from leaves and twigs! 
Finally, fashion’s most luxurious material is being replaced with a sustainable alternative made from…plants!

Turning Waste Into Sustainable Leather 

With an ingredient list comprising pineapple leaves, apples, fungi, natural rubber, and other bio-based ingredients, plant-based leather production can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 98% compared to animal leather. Natural materials can pave the path to a more sustainable fashion industry. However, there’s no perfect solution.
For innovative materials, it’s the price tag. And not all the plant leathers are biodegradable or available for brands to use yet. There’s a ton of research and development going into this field, and even though the products can be pricey, remember that every time you purchase something, it casts a vote for the type of industry you support.
Whether you’re hearing about plant-based materials for the first time or you already own sustainable leather, we’ve put together a guide to the best plant-based alternatives to leather and where to find them:

Pineapple leather

Pineapple leather 1 _ Photo credit_ Pineapple Supply Co.
Photo by Pineapple Supply Co. on Unsplash

Named Piñatex, it’s an eco-friendly and natural leather made from pineapple leaf fibres. Breathable, mouldable and soft to touch, Piñatex, made by Ananas Anam, has been around for a few years and was used by H&M in their 2019 Conscious Exclusive Collection.

Pineapple leather contains 72% pineapple waste, doesn’t need extra land, water or resources to grow (it’s a byproduct of the food industry), and provides farming communities with an opportunity to earn extra income. It’s no wonder that pineapple leather is a great sustainable material.

Bamboo leather

Have you worn a soft and silky bamboo shirt before? It’s soft and smooth! Now, this plant is transformed into a leather-like material. Natural, breathable and lightweight, bamboo leather is made entirely from bamboo.

As the fastest-growing plant on the planet, and one of the least thirsty, it’s an excellent choice for sustainable leather bags and footwear. Check out the timeless Banbū Leather collection from Von Holzhausen.

Coconut leather

Coconut leather is a nature-friendly plant based alternative to leather. The natural leather is grown entirely from agricultural waste from the coconut industry. What starts as a jelly-like substance (made of wastewater and natural fibres) is combined with resin to form a flexible sheet of material. It’s still pretty new, and only a few eco-conscious designers like Eva Klabalova and Lucie Trejtnarova have used it, but we believe that coconut leather will become a top contender in the ethical leather market.

Apple leather

It looks a lot like the real thing, more than other leather alternatives, but the paper-like texture of apple leather gives it an unusual feel.

Manufactured by Frumat, apple leather is a byproduct of the food industry. It’s made by turning apple waste, from industrial juicers, into a dried powder which is then mixed with Polyurethane (PU) – a plastic bonding material – before being treated with non-toxic dyes and turned into AppleSkin.

Perfect for backings and surface decorations on clothes, it’s breathable, easy to colour and comes in a range of thicknesses. Take a look at Happy Genie and The Manda (see our interview with them) for some eco-friendly apple leather bags.

Cork leather

Birkenstock owners will already know this material. Found in the soles of sandals, this sustainable raw material is now being turned into apparel and accessories. Moldable, breathable and durable, this natural leather alternative is entirely recyclable and is made by removing, air drying, and boiling cork oak tree bark before flattening it into a sheet.

Cork leather is one of the most eco-friendly leather alternatives available.

Mushroom leather

Mushroom leather 1 _ Photo credit_ Stella McCartney @stellamccartney
Stella McCartney @stellamccartney

Made from mycelium, fungi’s underground root structure, this lab-grown leather is transformed into clothes, shoes and accessories.

Made by Bolt Threads and MycoWorks, mushroom leather, is one of the most talked-about leather alternatives. Companies such as adidas, lululemon, and Hermes are already trialling it in some of their products.

Stella McCartney sent the first-ever Mylo mushroom leather handbag down the Summer 22 catwalk during Paris Fashion Week. With its breathable, flexible and water-resistant characteristics – it’s an excellent substitute for leather!

Wine leather

With scrumptious tones of burgundy, rust and ruby – wine leather appears just as decadent as it sounds. By combining by-products such as seeds, stalks and skins from wine grapes, Italian company Vegea turns waste products into a sustainable and durable material. Even though it’s not entirely biodegradable yet, we see many sneakers and bags made from wine leather. Still, it’s only a matter of time until the product offering expands into apparel.

Cactus leather

Cactus leather plant based alternative
Desserto @desserto.pelle

Invented by Desserto, cactus leather is made from nopal cactus (also known as prickly pear) leaves. These are abundant in Mexico (where it’s grown), making Desserto Leather easy to grow and cost-effective to produce.

Cactus leather is (mostly) compostable, very flexible and soft enough to use in clothing and home decor.

Who’s using cactus plant based alternatives to leather? Fossil, KEVA, ASK Scandinavia and the list goes on. Fashion definitely has a soft spot for this bio leather.

Coolstone leather

Technically it’s not a plant, but we wanted to include it anyway. Coolstone leather is made from sewable slate stone and feels like a mix of paper and rock. The distinct matte grey look gives it a grungy aesthetic, and like any good leather, it develops a rustic, worn-in look over time. It may be new, but we think this leather substitute is one to watch!

Fish skin leather

Fish skin alternative to leather
Osklen @osklen

Fish skin leather is a luxurious leather alternative; even though it’s not vegan, it is more durable and ethical than animal leather.

Unlike cattle-bred leather, which is responsible for deforestation, fish skin leather requires ten times less surface area to produce and is also a bonus revenue stream for farmers. It has a similar look and feel to snake leather but is made entirely from fish waste, by the company Nova Kaeru, in Brazil. Check out these fish skin leather handbags from Osklen.

Coffee leather

Ground coffee beans are putting waste back into the production cycle while turning into a unique new material; coffee leather. Soft and supple to touch and smelling like caffeine, it’s promoting a circular economy by giving a second life to coffee beans.

To see some coffee leather products, take a look at the German high-end sneaker brand NAT-2‘s Coffee Line. 

Take your pick

There are so many great reasons for choosing plant-based alternatives to leather – they’re friendlier on the environment, don’t harm animals, and are ethically produced.

And see our article if you are keen like we are to help end animal cruelty in the fashion industry.

We’ve shared our favourite plant leathers with you, but they’re not the only ones. Some other materials to look out for are; bio-fabric leather, banana leather, tea leather, tree leaf leather, recycled rubber and orange leather. 

Now that you’re better acquainted with ‘good’ leather, which has you most excited?

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