In-Depth: Five a day fashion – the rise of plant-based “leather”

Nike's "Happy Pineapple" shoes made from Pinatex

The next time you are in the fruit and vegetable section of your local supermarket, hand-picking the source of your latest five-a-day, take a look at the potential origins of your next luxury handbag or accessory.

Plant leather is becoming big business. Driven by vegan and sustainable demands, apples, pineapples, grapes, mushrooms, and even mangoes, are being turned into forms of synthetic leather.

Just as meat-free has made in-roads into our diets, animal free leather alternatives are stealing a march on your wardrobes, mostly notably in accessories.

How new is “plant leather”? Why are so many brands and designers turning to these new materials and is it really as green and sustainable as we’re led to believe?

Futures consultant Petah Marian says: “There is an emerging shift towards more vegan lifestyles, where some people are not wanting to wear leather. Plant-based leathers have also had a very positive rebrand with luxury brands like Stella McCartney and Nanushka making them aspirational items.”

Synthetic leather is divided into three categories: PU (polyurethane), PVC, and Bio-based. In 2020, the market was valued at over $30 billion. Infinium Global Research published a global report in 2020 on the Vegan Leather Market which estimated that the market for vegan leather will reach up to $89.6 billion by 2025, with a compound annual growth rate of 49.9%, in the forecast period (2019-2025).

“Some people perceive leather as being a luxury good, one that is durable and worthy of a premium price tag, but increasingly people are becoming concerned about the environmental impacts of the tanning process,” says Marian.

“As the processes around plant-based leathers have improved and the product has improved in tactility, consumers are becoming increasingly interested in buying products that are made from plant-based leather,” she says.

Marian thinks these leathers warrant a premium price tag: “A lot of R&D is going into creating these new leathers and businesses are pushing them as innovation.

“At the moment, there’s not much consumer clarity around the differences between plant-based leathers and fake leathers made from polyurethane.

“Operators in the space need to help consumers understand what plant leathers are made of, their current limitations and how they’re working to get them to a more sustainable point. For instance, many plant-based leathers are coated with plastics and are not biodegradable,” she says.

Tyler Ellis, a Los Angeles based accessory designer and the daughter of the renowned American fashion designer Perry Ellis, has turned to apple leather for a capsule collection of premium bags. Founded in 2011, her eponymous label’s “Apple Vogue” collection, priced £1,000 – £1,878, is handcrafted in Florence using a special custom apple leather that has been created by the Italian ecologic textile developer Mabel Srl.

Tyler Ellis Bristol tote made from apple leather

“I have clients who lead plant-based lifestyles and so I think that it’s important to listen to my surroundings and offer alternate materials to expand the brand’s core. I have previously worked with synthetic leathers, which of course are 100% man-made, but are not bio-degradable,” says Ellis.

“I have constantly been on the lookout for eco-friendly, natural materials, but until discovering this specific type of apple leather, I was not completely satisfied with the quality of the samples. For me, it’s about touch and feel,” she says.

But just because it’s not derived from an animal, it doesn’t necessarily mean that plant-based leather is cheaper. “The apple leather itself is less expensive [than traditional animal leathers] to purchase directly, but once duties are incorporated, the prices equal out, because duties on apple leather are over double those on real leather,” Ellis explains.

However it is as durable as traditional animal leathers, says Ellis: “It’s intentional grainy texture, meant to replicate natural animal skins, deters scratches and blemishes.” she says. “As of now, the colour options are very limited and the leather is not yet fully bio-degradable, as a portion is still synthetic.”

Ross Longhorn is co-founder of Wave, a producer of biodegradable phone cases. He says: “As a business that is focused on sustainability, we are constantly looking to experiment with innovative materials and provide affordable eco-friendly products. Unfortunately, many ‘vegan leather’ products are made from plastic and that’s why we chose to move away from conventional materials that are harmful for the planet.”

Wave has chosen a cactus leather produced by Desserto, who are based in Mexico, and is mainly used across the fashion and automotive industry.

Desserto cactus leather

“We scoured the internet for leather alternatives that could be used for wallets or card holders; cactus leather stood out as it is soft and durable. Specifically, the leather is produced from cultivating the same plantation, meaning no plants are damaged in the production process, so it seemed like a no-brainer. We also tested Pinatex, which is made from waste pineapple, but the material wasn’t suitable as it made the end product too thick,” says Longhorn.

“It has been a learning curve for us in terms of product development and material testing. We’ve found that non-animal leather reacts differently to embossing/engraving and there’s a range of thicknesses available that can impact the final product considerably,” he says.

Other materials Wave is looking at using are Tômtex, a 100% bio-based material created from chitin from shell seafood waste or mushrooms, and Mykkö, also made using fungi.

Genia Mineeva, founder of BEEN London, an accessories brand using vegan and recycled leather, says: “From animal cruelty on one end to extremely negative environmental impact on the other, virgin animal leather is linked to deforestation, excessive water usage, waterway pollution and huge CO2 emissions that are inextricably linked to global warming. The annual global emissions from leather production are equal to that of 30 million cars!” she says.

“What is often called ‘vegan leather’ is usually just PU or PVC (essentially plastic) and again, was never an option for us because of the environmental impact,” she says.

A social enterprise, BEEN London only uses materials that would otherwise be discarded. Wallets start from £75, clutches £100, and going up to £275 for larger tote bags.

Pinatex is made from discarded pineapple leaves, an agricultural waste product of the pineapple harvest, which produces 13 tonnes of pineapple leaf waste each year globally. An estimated 3.7 trillion apples are thrown away each year for imperfections – FRUMAT dries and grounds these unwanted peels and cores of apples into a powder which is then mixed with a binder and pigment to be spread onto a canvas until it turns into a leather-like material.

“We work with Pinatex and FRUMAT apple skin because they look and feel great and provide beautiful solutions to waste. Note, we don’t currently work with any of the plant-based leathers that require growing crops to make it, such as cactus leather and mushroom leather,” says Mineeva.

“The biggest frustration is the fact that a lot of these leathers require some sort of protective coating that is often recyclable and in some plant leathers is biodegradable, but I’ve spent years searching for someone to come up with a COMPOSTABLE solution. Beware of ‘biodegradable’ – it might mean that things biodegrade into millions of plastic particles!” she says.

“We have now found an amazing partner ‘Biophilica’ who developed ‘TreeKind’. I think this might be revolutionary. A green waste-based leather alternative that is compostable. We’re excited to be the first brand to test it in a product and have exciting news to come in this space,” says Mineeva.

Mercer Appleskin sneakers

The sneaker and sports shoe industry has been one of the biggest endorses of these new plant leathers. Pim Dresen, Founder of Mercer Amsterdam, a premium sneaker brand using pineapple and grape leathers, says: “As a brand we want to show the world that not everything has to be animal related. We want to show that there is good footwear without killing animals,” he says.

“There is PU in the pineapple and grape skin (around 15%) to stabilise the material and to make it more durable,” says Dresen.

Some plant leathers are double the price of animal leather. “It is much more expensive, animal leather start at €15 per square metre, whereas this material is roughly around €30 per square metre,” he says.

Dresen hasn’t gone over completely to plant leather: “We only use cow hides from gold certified Leather Working Group tanneries – this means that we keep our tanneries up to the highest standards in environmental practices such as full traceability, chemicals used and disposed and so on.”

The German research institute, FILK, tested a number of plant-based alternatives, including Pinatex, Appleskin and Desserto, for their functional performance compared to a footwear upper leather. None could match leather in all the functions examined, although some could match it for some. The key failings were in abrasion resistance and vapour permeability. One of the arguments is that traditional animal skin products will last longer and therefore need to be replaced less often and therefore better for the environment.

Kerry Senior, Director of Leather UK, the trade association for the UK leather industry, agrees: “There is no evidence to support the suggestion that plant-based materials are better for the environment than real leather.

“These materials are usually pitched as being more sustainable as they use waste plant materials and don’t carry the impact of cattle rearing. However, that doesn’t mean that they are better for the environment, in the same way that ‘vegan’ doesn’t mean more sustainable. The bulk of these materials are essentially plant matter glued together with plastics,” he says.

“In the case of apple leather, it is 50% PU, while Desserto, the cactus-based material, is 65% PU. This may be less plastic than a fully synthetic material, but it vastly more than will be applied in the finish to even the most heavily coated leathers,” he says.

“Pinatex, the pineapple material, is a little different in that it use 20% polylactic acid (PLA), a bio-plastic, as a binder. Using a bioplastic seems like a better choice but PLA will only biodegrade in very specific conditions,” says Senior. “The chances of an item made from Pinatex ending up in such a facility is at best, extremely low.

Another exception are the mycelium-based products, such a Mylo, but interestingly, these have to be tanned and finished like leather in order to become useful materials,” he says.

“Real leather is made from a by-product of the meat industry, hides and skins, that will be produced whether or not that by-product is subsequently made into leather. Leather manufacture has no direct influence on the number of animals reared or slaughtered; this has been demonstrated by a study by the University of Minnesota,” says Senior.

In 2019 and 2020, as much as 18% of the hides produced in the USA, with a mature leather industry, were simply thrown away. Globally, it is estimated that as many as 40% of the hides produced are disposed of.

“I think that the use of wastes to make new product has to be the way forward – it’s what we’ve doing with hides and skins for a very long time – but I find it very hard to see how making new plastics to give functionality to these plant-based materials can be better for the environment that using a raw material (hides and skins), that already exists,” Senior says.

“The (leather) industry has to do more to ensure that customers and consumers understand the provenance and benefits of leather. Consumers need to move to a slow fashion model, where items are kept for longer, repaired and reused and can be ultimately safely disposed of – leather is a perfect fit for that model.

“We also need to address the multitude of misconceptions around the environmental impact of livestock, animal welfare, environmental impacts, chemicals etc. for the manufacture of leather. The industry has been slow to react to the wild claims made about leather by agenda groups, but we are getting much better at explaining why leather is a good choice for people and the planet. There are multiple resources available such as Leather Naturally, World Leather’s ‘Nothing to hide’ series, the Real Leather, Stay Different campaign and the information available on the Leather UK website,” he says.

Some plant leathers are just greener plastic in much the same way E10 is greener petrol. Arguably, there is an element of greenwashing in this new trend. If you want to go animal free then, clearly, it’s the best option, but whether it’s better for the planet than traditional animal leather is debatable with its current constituent parts. Animal leather is a by-product of another industry, and while people eat meat it will continue to exist.

Plant leathers, like most environmentally friendly products, will need detailed labelling and have to be transparent about their ingredients to gain trust by consumers who choose to dig a little deeper. While percentages of bio material will get better as the technology advances, and the end goal will be a fully 100% compostable product, it also has to live up to the expectations and demands of a material labelled as “leather”.

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