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INTRODUCTION TO VEGAN LEATHER

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What is vegan leather? What are the options? Get a digest of this growing trend in the manufacturing world.

Definition and Environmental Considerations

Vegan leathers are non-animal materials designed to mimic the look and mechanical qualities of leather. They have been around for decades, in the forms of vinyl and pleather and leatherette. In the past, their chief selling point has been their economical affordability. However, with its new branding as ‘vegan,ʼ there is now an additional expectation of ecological concerns and ethical responsibility, hence the growing interest in vegan leathers, where designers and consumers alike seek to make more ethical choices.

Despite this abundance of good intentions, there is an unfortunate lack of knowledge regarding the production of vegan leathers and its repercussions. There is also little understanding of how to judge the true environmental impact of a material. This combination of well-meaning intent, without a deeper awareness, and insufficiently discriminating eye, may lead us to misjudge how our choices will affect the environment.

There are few standards regulating who may call their products ‘veganʼ, and little clarity in how green their vegan wares really are. The conscientious-sounding label can then further confound the situation, as it often masks the negative environmental impact posed by many leather substitutes. People thus tend to adopt the overly simplistic and erroneous assumption that vegan leathers are green by definition, or that they are, at least, an ethically superior alternative to true animal leathers. These assumptions do not necessarily reflect the reality—which can be far more complex and possibly less ‘greenʼ.

Fruit and recycle bin

Criteria to consider when Evaluating Materials

How to be more discerning when looking through the many materials available?

Here are some criteria to consider when evaluating them:

  • Clean sourcing : Readily renewable resources or waste products of other industries can make for some of the cleanest sources of raw materials.
  • Clean production : In regards to the production, greener processes are those that demand less water, less fossil fuels, and fewer toxic chemicals that may seep into the surrounding environment.
  • Quality use and wear : Longer lasting materials are considered less wasteful, as consumers need to replace products less frequently.
  • Biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable.

TYPES OF VEGAN LEATHER

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Here is a list of different categories of vegan leathers, how they are produced, processed, and disposed of, along with a few examples:

  • Plastic-based (Pleather)
  • Bio-Plastics
  • Bio-Leathers
  • Manufactured, lab grown leathers
Plastic materials

Plastic-based (Pleather)

Leather, rubber and other textiles are sourced from the finest Italian tanneries and textile manufacturers. Materials such as cotton can be used to reinforce the leather, providing increased strength and breathability.

  • Polyurethane (PU)
  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
  • Microfiber synthetic leathers
  • Microsuede synthetic leathers
People recycling plastic material

Bio-Plastics

Although still plastic-based, bio-plastic leathers strive to be more sustainable by taking advantage of recent technological innovations in plastics

  • Renewable biomass sources, such as Stella McCartneyʼs “EcoAlter Napa”
  • Biodegradable plastic leathers
  • Reclaimed plastics/ocean plastics: plastics retrieved from landfills or the ocean
Tree bark vegan leather

Bio-Leathers

Bio-Leathers are produced from fibers found in nature. As such, they tend to be far less wasteful in sourcing, far less toxic in production, and nearly all are biodegradable or at least compostable.

Learn more
Palm tree

Palm tree used for producing bio-leather Tree bark leathers, such as:

  • Palm leather
  • Cork leather
  • Flesswood
Fruit Vegan leathers

Fruitleather samples made from discarded fruits such as apples and mangos. Photo courtesy of fruitleather.nl
Food industry waste-product leathers, such as:

  • Piñatex: from pineapple leaves discarded after pineapple harvest
  • Vegea: from the waste by-product of Italyʼs wine industry
  • Fruit leather: from various fruit waste
Mushroom vegan leather

Mushroom used for producing bio-leather Mycelium and mushroom leathers:

  • Mycoworks
  • MuSkin
  • MYX
Researcher at lab using microscope

Manufactured, lab grown leathers

These are among the newest leathers developed using the latest technologies. They are attempts at culturing various skins in labs and 3D bio-printing hides, then tanning them to produce authentic-looking leather.

  • Modern Meadow
  • Zoa

Access our complete guide

Vegan Leather Explained is an in-depth guide presenting vegan leathers in technical detail, including the downfalls of using plastic leathers, and ‘greenwashingʼ. It also takes a closer look at sustainability efforts, such as in bio-plastics, and especially, in bio-leathers.

Finally, the guide provides in-depth profiles on three very promising vegan bio-leathers: Cork leather, Piñatex® (pineapple leather), and MycoWorks (mycelium leather); examining their green-metrics, how they are produced, their material properties and applications, costs, and market availability, along with examples of similarly derived materials.

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