From the horrors of factory farming to the health issues affecting workers, to the leather industry’s high carbon footprint, it really begs the question: is all of this worth a pair of shoes? If buying leather just doesn’t sit right with you, there are plenty of amazing, plant-based alternatives out there.
Innovative leather alternatives that are worth checking out
There’s no denying that leather is a classic, durable material. For thousands of years, humans have benefited from animal hide as a by-product of hunting, using it for clothing, shelter, and tools. These days, in the era of factory farming and mass production, leather is considered a profitable co-product, which comes with its own set of ethical issues. So for consumers who are concerned about the impact of their fabric choices on animals, workers, and the environment, leather is a questionable investment.
The good news is that innovators the world over are producing gorgeous vegan alternatives that are just as hardy as leather, and that address the animal welfare issues associated with leather.
A note on choosing materials based on your values
We appreciate that materials and fibres in fashion is a complex issue. Through our research, we found there is no established hierarchy of sustainability for materials in the fashion industry, and very limited comparable data (eg Life Cycle Analysis). What is clear is that every single material on the market today has some sort of trade off and impact on the planet and a mixture of preferred materials is needed going forward.
At Good On You, we do our best to make sense of the complex materials world by independently analysing the information that is out there and consulting with industry experts. We recognise that the impacts of a given material can vary based on where and how it was produced. We also welcome all the innovation around novel materials. But as always, we are looking for solid science to assess them against all the main areas of environmental impact
Our list of lower-impact materials is not static and is constantly evolving as more research and data comes to light.
We believe that you are the final decision maker when choosing materials for yourself. Figure out what is most important to you and let information guide your process.
Of course, materials are not the only issue a brand should be addressing. For example, a brand using vegan materials but not addressing greenhouse gas emissions in the supply chain, hazardous chemicals in dyeing, textile waste, or labour rights issues is far from best practice, but using more sustainable materials is a good base upon which to build a responsible brand.
Piñatex is a leather alternative made from pineapple leaf fibres. This innovative material manufactured by Ananas Anam, featured in Vogue, is taking the fashion world by storm. Not only is it a plant-based and more responsible material—it also supports local farming communities by providing extra income from something that was previously being discarded as waste. Portuguese label NAE (“Good”) are big fans and use the fabric in a number of their stylish shoes. We sense an exciting future for this funky fruit leather.
Pinatex is not 100% biodegradable, however. According to Ananas Anam, the substrate/base material of Piñatex (made from 80% pineapple leaf fibre, 20% PLA) is biodegradable under controlled industry conditions. Plus, the material is coated by a REACH-compliant water-based PU resin.
Believe it or not, mushroom leather may be the next big thing in lower-impact materials. Mylo is a material made from mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms. This innovative material is produced by Bolt Threads, a biotechnology company that has successfully scaled up the production of Mylo for use in fashion and beyond. Bolt Threads has even engineered a process to grow mycelium in a vertical farming facility powered by 100% renewable energy.
Mylo can be used to create everything from handbags to shoes, and with its high quality and durability, it’s sure to be a game changer in the fashion industry. For example, in 2021, Stella McCartney (“Good”) used Mylo to create a bustier top and utilitarian trousers for a Vogue shoot.
Note that while Mylo is predominantly made of mycelium, and it also contains “some lyocell and a water-based polyurethane (PU) finish for added strength and durability to ensure Mylo products have a long and useful life“.
Another promising vegan leather alternative is Modern Meadow’s Bio-Tex using Bio Alloy technology, which is produced through a unique fermentation process using natural materials like sugar and yeast. This cutting-edge material has a soft, luxurious texture that rivals traditional leather. According to Modern Meadow, greenhouse gas emissions from producing Bio-Tex could be reduced by over “90% compared to traditional, chrome-tanned leather based on a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA)”.
Desserto’s cactus leather is another exciting vegan leather alternative that has gained attention in the last few years. This material is made from the prickly pear cactus, which is abundant in Mexico and other parts of the world. The production process does not require harmful chemicals or excessive water usage. Cactus leather is also incredibly versatile and can be used to create a wide range of products, from shoes to wallets.
In a February 2023 article, the Guardian reported that in 2021 the FILK Freiberg Institute investigated leather alternatives and found “the presence of chemicals and plastics in a range of leather alternatives suggested Desserto does contain PU, and found five restricted chemical substances in the sample tested”. The brand responded saying it was due to cross-contamination.
Waxed canvas and (organic) cotton
Traditionally used for jeans and bags, this stylish, diverse material is growing in popularity and expanding to other clothing items. The wax is more responsible and protects you from the elements like leather does. On top of being pliable and waterproof, waxed cotton or canvas is much easier to clean than animal leather, which means you cut down on dry cleaning costs and the hazardous chemicals that go along with it.
Waxed cotton is used by many brands as a leather alternative, but not all of them use organic cotton, so make sure you double check before purchasing.
If you are looking for a quirky, sturdy, and waterproof leather alternative, look no further. Cork has recently skyrocketed in popularity as a forward-thinking fashion material. Not only is cork water resistant, renewable, and completely recyclable, it is durable, light, and easy to keep looking good as new.
Cork is a plant fibre that comes from cork oak trees. With a lifespan of around 300 years, cork oak trees are harvested for their bark each decade, but the trees continue to live and grow, going on to produce more cork. By wearing cork, you are helping to prevent the desertification of cork oak forests, which numerous endangered species call home.
If you’re after hardy leather accessories without the animal cruelty, recycled rubber could be right up your alley. While it’s durable and easy to care for, it’s important to note that this material takes a long time to break down, meaning you need to know you’ll be using it forever.
A lot of commercially available rubber doesn’t even come from rubber trees anymore—it is entirely synthetic. That aside, we recommend recycled rubber products. You’ll give new life to objects like tyres and even fire hoses.
Another mushroom leather is this organic textile by Life Materials, dubbed MuSkin, which comes from a type of fungus. The fungi can be grown to the specific size and shape required for designs. Waterproofing is necessary but can be done without harmful chemicals, making this a biodegradable alternative to leather. Softer than suede and antibacterial, this is one clever innovation to look out for in the near future.
Grown entirely from the waste products of the coconut industry, this new alternative is durable and strongly resembles real leather in appearance. Despite its durability, because the material is made out of waste-water and natural fibres, you can pop it into the compost once you are finished with it. It really doesn’t get easier or more sustainable than that.
Another by-product leather comes from apple harvesting. Made from the discarded skin and cores, apple leather looks similar in appearance to real leather but has a paper-like feel. This is actually a bonus as the texture lends itself to easily adding different backings, coatings, and effects depending on whatever aesthetics you want for your garment.