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.
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. But 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 don’t cost the earth. From boots made out of pineapples to recycled hose-pipe belts, check out these exciting new fabrics that are giving the leather industry a run for their money.
Piñatex is a leather alternative made from pineapple leaf fibres. This innovative material manufactured by Ananas Anam, featured in Vogue, is taking the eco-fashion world by storm. Not only is it a 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 are big fans and use the fabric in a number of their stylish shoes. We sense an exciting future for this funky fruit leather—and pineapple isn’t the only food you can wear.
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 environmentally friendly 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.
Note: 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.
When you think of durable fabrics, tree leaves probably don’t come to mind–but that’s changing. A relatively rare material on the market, leaf leather is a unique cruelty-free option. They’re made by applying a polymer to preserve the leaves into fibre sheets. The leaves are easily sourced, and no toxic treatments or dyes are needed for the production process.
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 natural 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 is 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.
Believe it or not, mushroom leather may be the next big thing in sustainable materials. This organic textile, dubbed MuSkin, 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, eco-friendly 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.
Choose 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 more eco-friendly 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 organic cotton but not addressing greenhouse gas emissions in the supply chain, 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.