Four alternatives to animal leather and their environmental impact

As sustainability becomes a way of life and not just a buzzword, consumer mindset shifts are having an impact on the commercial world. Earlier this year, Volvo announced that it would be ditching animal leather interiors in favour of more eco alternatives and Elle magazine has just pledged to stop promoting fur. It’s a brave new world, but for die-hard luxury fans, leather remains a totem of quality.

Thankfully, there are a host of vegan alternatives that offer the same durability and elegance that has long been associated with leather. Here are four of the best:

1. Apple leather
A bio-based material that is made from apple waste, the leather was first developed in 2004, in Italy. Initial incarnations used just 15% apple waste but today’s have up to 50%. PU is mixed with the apple pomace and then the whole mixture is applied to cotton or canvas. The finished material is strong, waterproof, flexible and has the look and feel of a quality animal leather.

Eco credentials: The material comes from entirely renewable sources and from a waste stream. If the pomace was not used for apple leather it would end up in landfill or being burned.

2. Pineapple leather
Pineapple leather is made by Piñatex. It uses cellulose fibres from the pineapple leaves, which are processed until they resemble soft, supple leather. The extraction of the fibres produces a useful byproduct that can be used as fertiliser or biogas, bringing extra revenue to the farmers that grow the pineapple crops.

Eco credentials: Though pineapple leather is not naturally biodegradable, it can be broken down industrially and in quick time. Piñatex is made from 72% pineapple leaf fibre and 18% PLA, both of which can be broken down effectively.

3. Mycelium leather
One of the most sustainable vegan leathers, mycelium material is made from infinitely renewable fungi root fibres. It was developed by scientists and has since been picked up by countless big fashion names. The premise of the material is that it offers a natural alternative to conventional leather, negating the environmental problems associated with synthetic plastic-based fabrics.

Eco credentials: Mycelium leather is not biodegradable, but its components make it inherently more sustainable than most options. As the product is very new, no lifecycle carbon footprint has been calculated yet but this information is keenly anticipated.

4. Cactus leather
Nopal is the main component of cactus leather. It is grown in Mexico and offers the strength and versatility that standard leather does. The manufacturing process is also sustainable. Only mature nopal leaves are harvested for leather production and they grow back in six to eight months. In addition, no irrigation is needed as rainwater supplies all the necessary moisture. Leaves are cut, mashed and left to dry in the sun. When they reach the perfect consistency, they are mixed with non-toxic adhesives and applied to a backing cloth.

Eco credentials: Cactus leather is partially biodegradable, putting it above almost all other vegan leathers. The only unanswered question is how long it can last.

Consumers are becoming more aware of the implications of their fashion choices. Animal leather might be a traditional material, but it’s one underpinned with cruel and environmentally hazardous implications. There is still some way to go before there is a fully sustainable and biodegradable vegan alternative ready to use, but considering that cactus leather was only innovated in 2019, more progress is all but guaranteed in the future fabrics arena.