Avoiding animal-derived materials like leather, wool, and down is a great way to protect animals, all while reducing the climate and biodiversity impacts of your wardrobe, and caring for people too. But, when animal-derived materials are replaced with virgin synthetic materials, we’re choosing plastic. That’s certainly not a responsible choice either, so what plastic-free alternatives to animal-derived materials are out there?
Why avoid animal-derived materials in the first place?
When many of us think of animal-derived materials, we think of natural materials. Across the United States and Australia, most consumers believe that “natural” materials come from nature without harm to nature, but unfortunately this isn’t always true, and it’s certainly not the case for animal-derived materials.
Not only are materials like leather and wool often highly processed (standard chromium and formaldehyde tanning renders the former non-biodegradable, while wool scouring often results in massive amounts of water pollution), raising animals as commodities is inherently inefficient, harming the planet.
Enormous, potent methane emissions are associated with raising cows and sheep in fashion supply chains, while factory farming ducks and geese for down results in phosphorus emissions that can devastate surrounding aquatic ecosystems. All of these animals require more land to feed on (whether directly, or when soy meal is produced for factory farms) than would be needed to simply grow plants for eating and wearing, instead.
And of course, when we talk about animal-derived materials, we can’t forget to talk about animals themselves. Cows get excited when they learn new things, sheep recognise different emotions on the faces of their friends, and young ducklings show abstract thought. In the ways that matter most, humans and our fellow animals are the same: capable of thought and feelings, undoubtedly able to feel pain and seeking to avoid it. And yet, animal-derived materials exist by transforming individuals into objects through cruelty and ultimately, killing.
Plastic fashion isn’t the answer
Opting out of a long held societal belief that animal-derived materials are necessary and desirable helps the planet and all those living on it. But unfortunately, many of the widely available alternatives to these materials are made from fossil fuels. PVC and polyurethane synthetic leather, acrylic knitwear, and polyester jacket filling—they’re all plastic.
While it’s worth being aware that producing some synthetic materials actually has significantly smaller climate and other environmental impacts compared to materials like leather and wool, “less bad for the planet” is not the same as “good for the planet”.
Synthetic material production relies on the continued extraction of fossil fuels, something that we must move beyond in order to protect our planet. Did you know that fashion’s annual use of oil to make synthetic fabrics exceeds that of all of Spain?
Additionally, synthetic fibres don’t biodegrade (nor do natural fibres which have been processed or dyed with non-biodegradable substances) and if you put an acrylic or other synthetic sweater in the washing machine, it will shed synthetic microfibres that will flow into our waterways, contributing to the pollution of the ocean and life within it.
Moving past false dichotomies
Fashion can do better than both of these material types. While plenty of articles push clickbaity headlines debating whether animal or synthetic materials are better, we actually don’t need to choose either of them.
Fortunately, there are solutions out there, and a growing number of them. While your most sustainable option will always be wearing and caring for what you have, as well as shopping pre-loved, new and innovative materials offer exciting opportunities for better choices, too.
Plastic-free leather alternatives
Here are three of our favourite animal-free and plastic-free, “next-gen” leather materials:
This material is made from all natural inputs like rice hulls, coconut husks, charcoal, clay, latex rubber, plant-based oils, and waxes. Certified as made from 100% bio-content, MIRUM has a far smaller climate impact than both animal and synthetic leather alike, according to an early life cycle assessment.
Excitingly, when this material is no longer in use, it can be recycled into new MIRUM material, or it can eventually biodegrade.
Not all futuristic materials are made with new technology: sometimes we only need to look to nature to find fashionable solutions. When cork trees, or quercus suber, are harvested of their outer bark, it actually helps the tree to absorb and securely store more carbon from our atmosphere, rather than hurting them.
Cork is naturally water resistant, and when backed onto a material like cotton, can be used as a great leather alternative, able to be dyed and embossed into a range of finishes.
Another solution found amongst trees is washable paper. So long as this material is sourced with a certification that ensures no old-growth or native forest logging, this is a great option. Fast growing tree plantations can produce materials efficiently on a relatively small amount of land, and washable paper is water resistant, tear resistant, as well as nice to look at.
Some start-ups, like Biophilica, are further improving this material solution. The company’s material, Treekind, is a wood-based material made only from discarded and already dead wood. It is compostable at its end-of-life, too.
Plastic-free wool alternatives
If you’re worried that you won’t be warm without wool, let us tell you a little secret: according to fashion academic Dr Rebecca Van Amber, a big part of what keeps us warm isn’t what fibre we wear, but how thick and tightly knit that fabric is, so that wind and cold aren’t getting through.
When we’re seeking plastic and wool-free winter materials, here’s what we look out for:
TENCEL™ Lyocell is a material made from wood cellulose, which means it starts out as a (responsibly-grown and harvested) eucalyptus tree. While some cellulosic materials are polluting, this one is made in a closed-loop, so solvents are recycled and reused, not released.
TENCEL™ Lyocell has similar thermo-regulation and moisture-wicking properties as wool, with a far smaller land footprint (helping protect biodiversity), and no associated animal cruelty or methane emissions. An even better version to look out for is TENCEL™ Lyocell with REFIBRA™ technology which is made from a mix of wood pulp and textile waste as opposed to 100% wood pulp.
You can’t go wrong with this classic, especially if it’s grown organically. Hemp gets softer and softer the more you wash it, while remaining hardy and long-lasting. This plant can be grown with minimal water and land, and when blended with responsibly-sourced cotton, it’s super soft, like wool.
This category can include recycled cotton, cotton grown with more holistic management practices and that’s rain-fed, as well as certified organic (and Fairtrade) cotton. The beautiful cotton plant seems as though it were designed for wearing, transforming from fluffy bolls into fabric ready to be cosy in.
Keep in mind the stats on water consumption associated with cotton production vary widely, so while sticking to these more responsibly-sourced versions of cotton may improve sustainability in some regards, it is still up to your values and discretion when choosing brands to support.
Plastic-free down alternatives
Avoiding live-plucking, the feathers of slaughtered birds, and plastic alike might feel like a challenge, but it’s only getting easier. While companies like PrimaLoft offer commercially biodegradable synthetic, as well as totally recycled options, there’s one alternative that reigns supreme.
Flower down (FLWRDWN)
Created by PANGAIA, which has also made puffer jackets and a vest from the good stuff, this material is made from wildflowers which are made into a bio-polymer, thanks to an aerogel that is derived mostly from recycled paper. Life cycle assessment shows reduced global warming potential and energy demand to make this material, instead of a synthetic jacket filling.
This material does make use of a bio-polymer, which is a kind of plant-based plastic, but it’s totally biodegradable, insulating, and water repellent.
Although not yet widely used, Kapok—a natural fluffy fibre that comes from the kapok seed pod—is being used more and more as a down alternative in things like pillows. Biodegradable and compostable, this filling is often used as a more health- and planet-friendly alternative to feathers and is worth keeping an eye out for in future.