Are plant-based leathers actually good for the environment? Here's the answer
- Plant-based leathers are faux leather made primarily from plant material.
- Since no animal skin is needed, this leather is advertised as cruelty-free and better for the planet.
- But, studies have shown that they often contain banned chemicals and plastics.
Touted as the best environmentally-friendly, and cruelty-free alternative to real leather, plant-based faux leathers have become all the rage among the eco-conscious and those interested in animal alternatives. Sold as being made, essentially, from waste plant material, this material seems to be the perfect alternative leather for a world trying to reduce human impact on the world.
However, it turns out, that the producers of the products might not be being entirely truthful. Let's find out why.
What is the difference between 'real' leather and faux (fake) leather?
To prevent decomposition, leather is created when animal skins and hides are chemically treated or tanned. Leather is a flexible and long-lasting material. Cattle, sheep, goats, horses, buffalo, pigs, hogs, and aquatic creatures like seals and alligators are the primary sources of leather for commercial uses.
Most leathers are the by-product of the processing of animals to harvest their meat for human and animal consumption. While genuine leather is strong and durable, it must be adequately cared for to extend its life.
Genuine leather can age poorly and deteriorates in the presence of UV light. Compared to faux leather, genuine leather also comes in a far smaller range of natural colors. Real leather typically comes in white, black, and brown colors, although it can be dyed.
Genuine leather is breathable, but typically cannot be washed. Real leather must be maintained using specialized treatments to preserve the finish.
Faux or fake/synthetic leather is also a very durable material. So much so, that in some circumstances, faux leather can be more durable than actual leather. Although faux leather is available in a wide range of colors, it is not breathable like natural leather.
Genuine leather can easily absorb fluids because it is naturally absorbent, making it vulnerable to stains and challenging to clean. Natural leather should also be treated twice a year to keep it soft and prevent it from drying out.
When caring for natural leather, harsh chemicals must be avoided at all times. Faux leather, on the other hand, doesn't absorb liquids and is the most straightforward to clean. In many cases, it can simply be put in the washing machine or sponged off with a damp cloth.
Another big difference is the smell.
Although everyone's sense of smell differs, many people don't enjoy how some synthetic leathers smell. Many commercially available faux leathers will have a distinctly plastic or chemical smell. However, because it has additional real leather, bonded leather may smell more like natural leather, despite its artificial scent.
Genuine leather will smell natural rather than synthetic, for obvious reasons.
Can leather be made from plants?
In short, and as the name suggests, planet-based leather is precisely that, leather made from plants rather than animal skin. But, of course, it is a lot more complex than that.
Plant-based leathers are the latest in a long line of so-called faux leathers. Since the creation of the first synthetic substitute for leather in the 19th century, when people began experimenting with various synthetic derivatives, the non-animal-derived leather business has improved in quality, durability, and efficiency immensely.
However, most of these are made from plastics like synthetic polymers, polyurethane (PU), and polyvinyl chloride. While durable and resembling genuine leather in appearance, they are not the most sustainable source material, and lack the feel of natural leathers.
However, interestingly, one of the earliest is not the first; plant-based faux leathers were first created in Germany in the early 1900s. Called Presstoff, it was made of layers of specially layered paper pulp. This leather gained popularity in the German army due to the limited resources and wartime rationing during the First World War.
This is where plant-based or plant-derived leathers have a significant advantage.
These plant-based leather alternatives include anything from corn, pineapple, and mushrooms to bananas, apples, cacti, green tea, coffee grounds, coconut water, and more. Many even utilize agricultural waste, making them an actual win-win situation.
Plant leather checks a lot of boxes too: -
- It is cruelty-free.
- It is generally thought to be kinder to the environment.
- Some vegetable leathers are aesthetically pleasing and surprisingly leather-like in feel and appearance.
- Some of them can even be as durable as animal leather.
But, you might wonder, what kind of plants can be used to make this apparent miracle material? Let's take a look at some of the most well-known examples.
1. You can make leather from mushrooms
One of the hottest possibilities in the plant-based leather market is mycelium leather, a leather-like substance manufactured from mushrooms. The mycelium, which resembles microscopic threads and is widely dispersed through the Earth beneath the forest floor, is the underground root system of a fungal colony, or mushroom.
Mycelial cells that are precisely cultured to produce a supple and durable leather substitute are used to grow mushroom leather. Its quick and effective breeding allows it to be produced in various forms, sizes, and widths, significantly reducing the time needed to produce it compared to regular leather.
The Italian textile manufacturer Grado Zero Espace, which manufactures mycelium leather under the trade name Muskin (short for "mushroom-skin"), is responsible for its widespread use. The same company also tries to use as many natural products as possible for the rest of their products, too.
By-products of manufacturing like maize cobs, wood chips, and straw can be combined with mushroom spawn to produce new mycelium, serving as a role model for the circular economy. Other waste items can be used as beekeepers' smoke or organic agricultural fertilizer.
A certain non-edible mushroom species called Phellinus ellipsoideus is the fungus of choice for making Muskin. It is a native of subtropical forests and is regarded as a pest since it eats some tree trunks and makes them rot. Finding answers for not just one but two ecological issues is another benefit of mycelium leather.
The outcome is a startling suede-like leather that is resilient, light, and water-repellent. Mycelium leather, often known as "fungi fashion," is supple enough to be worn on the skin without irritating it. This is surprising because mushrooms are essential in various traditional Chinese skin care products.
Along with Grado Zero, the German company nat-2TM also manufactures mushroom-based vegetable leather. It also uses a parasitic fungus, making it advantageous for the environment. Unlike Muskin, nat-2TM creates faux leather shoes using a combination of mycelium leather, organic cotton, and recycled water bottles.
2. Apparently, you can also make leather from cacti
Another well-known brand in the burgeoning market for plant-based leather is Desserto. The Mexican company invented a technique for producing eco-friendly leather from prickly pear cacti. They even received a recent honor bestowed in partnership by PETA and the University of Oxford.
Desserto leather is also more environmentally friendly than genuine leather because it uses fewer carbon-intensive production methods and produces less waste overall.
Deserto cactus leather has many environmental advantages, from improving soil quality and boosting biodiversity to preserving water (which is crucial in the desert) and electricity. One of the primary causes of terrestrial CO2 emissions and soil degradation is land use change, which can be reversed locally as part of their afforestation program (growing prickly pear cacti).
No chemical fertilizers or pesticides are utilized; instead, cacti are allowed to grow and regenerate so that material can be continuously gathered from the same plant. Additionally, the gathered plant material is dried in a solarium rather than using energy-hungry dryers, significantly lowering their carbon impact.
With the recent release of their fashionable collection of cactus leather tote bags, American fashion brand Fossil is one of the early adopters of Desserto leather.
3. Some companies are even using apples to make faux leather
Apple leather is a bio-based product created from the leftover pomace and peel from the fruit juice and compote industries.
The cloth is made by grinding up recycled apple debris. After being prepared, apple waste can be mixed with polyurethane and coated onto a cotton and polyester canvas to create a flexible 'leather'.
It is pretty neat, and various companies are using it to make their clothing lines.
For example. the trendy Parisian brand Good Guys Don't Wear Leather prefers apple leather as its plant leather. According to them, apple leather is the way to go in vegan fashion.
They assert that apple leather lives up to their high criteria for sustainability and looks great while wearing well.
An Italian business makes this substitute for vegetable leather too. Called AppleSkinTM, this company utilizes a culinary waste material known as the mushy pulp from large-scale apple juicing.
However, only roughly 20 to 30 percent of the leather used in AppleSkinTM is made from plants; the remainder is polyester. However, the producers are developing a recycled polyester version that they want to release in 2026.
4. Pineapples can also be used for faux leather
Another plant that can turn into fake leather is, believe it or not, pineapples.
Pinatex, a plant-based leather manufactured from pineapple leaf fibers, is another well-liked substitute for leather made from animal products. The fact that pineapple leather makes use of a commodity that would otherwise be an agricultural waste product is one of its many beautiful qualities.
The pineapple leather first created by Dr. Carmen Hijosa and produced under the brand name Ananas Anam, also aids rural communities in the Philippines by giving them an additional source of revenue for resources they would otherwise just discard.
Pinatex also adheres to the cradle-to-grave philosophy of the circular economy paradigm. This indicates that the entire lifecycle of their product—from origin to disposal—was considered while designing it.
Like Muskin, this vegetable leather accomplishes two goals at once by turning a waste product from the pineapple business into a more environmentally friendly substitute for leather.
Usually, pineapple leaves from the harvest are thrown away, but they can also be used to create plant-based leather. The long fibers are removed from the pineapple leaves left in the fields after the pineapple harvest to make the leather. Then, these fibers are cleaned, dried (typically in the sun), and washed. The fluff-like pineapple leaf fiber that results is combined with a polylactic acid derived from corn and mechanically processed into a non-woven mesh.
A resin top-coating gives it more strength, durability, and water resistance, and the color is added using GOTS-certified organic pigments.
Hugo Boss, the well-known German fashion house, was one of the first companies to introduce shoes made of Pinatex as a part of its line of ethical designs with minimal adverse environmental effects.
Along with Maravillas and Portuguese shoe company Nae, Pinatex also collaborates with the well-known Italian fashion label Altiir, which has a collection of unique pineapple-inspired leather coats.
Another cutting-edge business, Nova Milan, creates vegetable leather using discarded pineapple leaves and other agricultural waste. As the "first entire supply chain ecosystem manufacturing petroleum-free, plant-based vegan leather at scale," they are situated in Costa Rica and aim to make Costa Rica the global leader in the burgeoning plant-based leather industry.
They might even follow suit. Being the top pineapple exporter in the world, Costa Rica generates a lot of plant fiber waste (up to 5 million metric tons per year!) that may be utilized to create vegan leather. They convert any plant material left over after making leather into fuel or organic fertilizer, which they then give to partner farmers.
Nova Milan's vegan alternative leather is also 100 percent biodegradable, much like other plant leathers.
5. Coconuts are another source of plant-based leather
We've already seen that various plants can be recycled and turned into leather-like materials. But, one of the most surprising is coconut waste.
One example is from a company called Malai. An environmentally conscious clothing line from Kerala, they create synthetic leather using scrap coconut, banana stems, sisal fiber, hemp fiber, and coconut water.
This reduces the trash generated by the coconut business, and the coconut leather derived from the process is useful and can decompose in under 150 days.
6. You can even use leaves to make a kind of leather too
Leaf leather, which is produced using conventional Thai techniques, is one of the most intriguing of all the plant-based leathers. People collect fallen teak leaves, soak them in water, and then let them dry to manufacture a substance similar to leather.
However, it is essential to note that the material produced is more of a laminate or composite than a leather per se.
Large sheets of wet and dried teak leaves are stacked, creating a durable and waterproof product that resembles leather. Interestingly, each "batch" is unique.
7. Bio-leather, while not plant-based, is another exciting innovation in faux leather
Strictly speaking, bio-leather is not made from plant material but is worthy of mention. Developed by Modern Meadow, the company has developed a new bio-fabricated leather substitute called ZoaTM.
This faux leather is unique because it is entirely lab-grown and made from collagen, aka "nature's vital protein." They don't employ any organic components from the natural world, either plant- or animal-based, or hazardous chemicals. It is advertised as sustainable and incredibly versatile as a material.
Pros and cons of plant-based leather?
So, as we've seen, plant-based leather is a practical alternative to bona fide leather, but is it all that it is cracked up to be?
You'll likely not be surprised to hear that plant-based leather, while it does solve some issues (like avoiding the killing of animals), it is not without its drawbacks.
But first, let's look at the benefits.
- Genuine leather tends to be more expensive than faux leather.
- Faux leather can be produced without harming or killing animals, like cows.
- It is possible to make faux leather in almost any color.
- A high-gloss sheen can be added to faux leather during manufacturing.
- A moist towel works well for cleaning faux leather - no chemicals are needed.
- Faux leather tends to require less maintenance than animal leather.
- Genuine leather is more prone to cracking than faux leather.
- Faux leather is resistant to UV fading.
- Some people find the absence of the natural leather scent in faux leather to be a benefit.
All good things, but what are the downsides?
- Genuine leather develops a shine, or patina, that faux leather does not. While not necessarily a drawback, fake leathers tend to lack the aesthetics of genuine leather.
- Faux leather can be more environmentally wasteful when compared to natural leather, as genuine leather is a by-product of animals being processed for their meat. It is, in other words, a form of waste reprocessing/reuse. (more on this in the next section).
- Faux leather may not have the same hypo-allergenic qualities as genuine leather.
- Faux leather is easily torn or punctured through misuse or accident, compared to genuine leather.
- Some faux leather can have a 'chemical' smell.
Environmental impacts of plant-based leather
Since plant-based leathers are supposedly made from plant material, their environmental impact should be limited or beneficial, right? Well, as it turns out, there might be a darker side to the industry.
While many companies producing plant-based leather are keen to tout their environmental credentials, they may not all be telling the entire truth. The faux leathers some of them produce are not all as "green" as they lead people to believe.
For example, an exciting investigation by The Circular Economy discovered that plant-based leathers often include large amounts of plastic and other synthetic fibers. Part of their investigation was based on an interesting peer-reviewed scientific article in the journal Coatings, which conducted some analysis of commercially available leather alternatives with genuine leather.
The researchers took samples of products produced by some of the biggest names in the industry, including Desserto, Kombucha, Pinatex, Appleskin, etc, and subjected them to Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy to see what exactly they are made of.
This technique produces an infrared spectrum, or "molecular fingerprint," of a chemical, polymer, or material that can reveal the types of molecular bonds and consequently the potential chemical structures present in a substance. It is used to provide an approximate qualitative assessment of the constituents or a mixture even if it is difficult to quantify, especially when compared to reference spectra of other materials.
One of the example materials analyzed was Desserto's Cactus Leather. The study found that the material is primarily polyurethane, as demonstrated by the infrared spectrum below, and not (essentially) a biopolymer derived from plants, such as cellulose or other polysaccharides.
Synthetic plastic materials like this take years to biodegrade. It also takes a lot of water, energy, and chemicals to process and create, and more seriously, it is one of the main components of micro-plastic pollution worldwide.
However, it is essential to note that the authors emphasize that it is challenging to measure the precise proportions of the substance using only infrared analysis.
"They confirmed our previous assertion that a major class of plant-based leathers were mostly made of polyurethane, typically attached to a polyester or cotton backing textile. They also compared a couple of fully bio-based alternatives such as Muskin and Kombucha, but the main finding was that their properties were very far from that of actual leather," explains the Circular Economy.
But, it gets worse.
The investigation also discovered that some leather substitutes, specifically the plastic-coated synthetic leathers Desserto, Appleskin, Vegea, and Piatex, contained traces of expressly prohibited substances.
The Desserto cactus leather, for example, had five banned compounds including butanone oxime, toluene, free isocyanate, an organic insecticide called folpet, and minute amounts of a phthalate plasticizer, which was one of the lowest ranking materials. Toluene, plasticizers, and the solvent DMF were also found in some alternative leather samples.
An in-depth discussion on the harmful nature of all these chemicals is out of the scope of this piece, but needless to say, they are not great. Butanone oxiume (MEKO), for example, was a common ingredient in materials like paint.
An anti-skinning chemical it has been recognized as a potent carcinogen and has subsequently been banned in many countries.
The article does not specify the precise concentrations at which these pollutants were found.
However, these are incidental discoveries to the study, as it primarily tested the materials' physical characteristics and contrasted them with genuine leather. Naturally, none of the materials truly matched the functions of animal leather. Some materials were closer than others, but in terms of strength Muskin and Kombucha, which are non-coated or hybrid, were very weak.
Of course, different physical attributes will be tolerated differently depending on the application, as some brands may want to use the unique characteristics of specific materials in their product designs. It is difficult to recreate the natural collagen network present in animal skins, therefore it is obvious that the materials are only approximations of genuine leather.
This will be a shock for proponents of the green virtues of plant-based leathers. But, all is not lost.
Currently, conventional leathers can be found that have been manufactured without chromium and tanned utilizing methods based on plants, minimizing the environmental impact in some significant ways, although they still involve the use of animals.
Innovators from other fields are also working on this problem to develop plant-based and plastic-free substitutes for leather. But, these innovators really should be more transparent with the public.
"What we need to be clearer about is the claims that are being made about certain materials and the way in which these stories are told to the public. It will ultimately undermine consumer confidence in the long term, if every new plastic and natural material hybrid is hailed as a ‘breakthrough sustainable innovation’," explains the Circular Economy.
So, while there s a need to provide animal-free alternatives for customers, like vegans, who would rather not wear animal products, it is essential that producers of these materials are more transparent about any environmentally-friendly claims they make.
At least until they develop methods to remove as many plastic and chemical ingredients harmful to the environment as they can.