Fruit, Faux, Vegan and microsuede: the leather alternatives
Cactus leather, mushroom leather, pineapple leather, apple leather… Every week it seems a new, revolutionary material is introduced to the world. Their names suggest unrefined origins, the stories promise sustainability; they’re going to make all the old stuff unnecessary.
…but what are they really, these vegan, synthetic, and fruit leathers? Well, for one they are not leather, which is one of the least refined materials. Leather is a (mostly) intact animal hide that has been treated to be non-perishable with limited coating added. Anything else should have a different label. Let’s break it down further and see what sort of stuff we are talking about, really.
The Vegan Argument
Most people who object to leather, use what we can now call the ‘vegan argument’ – a deliberate choice to not use any products that are animal-based. Agree or disagree, as a personal opinion it is a valid choice to make. The vegan argument connects animal-based sourcing of food, products, and resources to animal suffering, domination or subservience to humans.
The hype and popularity of the vegan trend have boosted the labeling, development, and sales of many products labeled vegan. Veganism is a valid personal choice. However, as an ecological solution, it can take a too narrow look at the issues we face. In everything we do, we need to think of the impact down the line. If we produce plastics instead, what about product end-of-life? If we use chemicals and plastics to create new materials, what does that do to the carbon footprint? What are the relative advantages (and disadvantages) of natural woven fibers, hides, plastic-based textiles, or combinations of these?
The largest estimation of vegan consumers in any country does not exceed 10%, at its most optimistic. Yet, the impact of this trend on consumers and manufacturers is significant on a level that has nothing to do with personal preference. So let’s look at these alternatives.
The alternative materials to leather
Many of the materials, labeled as ‘vegan leather’ (or variations thereof) are in fact petroleum-based. That means plastics, either as a base material or a protective layer. Polyvinyl Chloride, commonly known as PVC, or polyurethane, abbreviated as PU, are the most common forms of ‘vegan leather’. In some cases, other thermoplastics like polyolefin are used. Though there are phthalate-free plastics available, they remain plastics.
We can divide the alternatives into three main categories: synthetics & coated fabrics, new materials, and engineered materials.
Synthetics & Coated Fabrics
Vinyl or PVC and Polyurethane
PVC is a thermoplastic that is light, tough, durable, rigid, and versatile. It’s created through chemical reactions and the use of plasticizers to create the traditional ‘faux leather’ choice. Unlike genuine leather, it’s likely to start cracking or flaking due to the loss of phthalates (plasticisers) over time. Though it’s chemically resistant, it doesn’t breathe and burns fast. Polyurethanes are more flexible and pliable and as a material may even come to resemble leather. PU is much cheaper though. Plastics like these may be sourced from recycling, but these are all polymers, plastic in nature, inert and non-biodegradable.
Pleather, also faux leather, imitation leather, vegan leather, artificial leather
Though leather is mentioned in the name of many of these products, there’s not one bit of the genuine material present in their constitution. Most faux leathers are just a PVC or polyurethane, often bonded with base fabrics which is itself often a polyester weave used to hold it all together. The fabric base can be natural, but that is a rarity. It allows them to be more flexible and durable. One big advantage of PVC or PU materials is their water-repellent properties.
Leatherette, also leathercloth
The name seems to indicate that leatherette is more fabric-like material, but in fact, is no different than the other artificial leathers we’ve just mentioned. It’s simply marketed differently, often used in the automotive industry, but is similarly a fabric/textile base coated with PVC or PU. Its advantage is that I’s easy to clean and low on maintenance.
Microsuede or microfiber
Though it sounds like you have an advanced form of suede on your hands, this material is a polyester fiber fabric. It is made to resemble the feel of suede and is often labeled as ‘lacking the downsides of the material’. They’re made with a weave that is finer than one dernier (approximately the standard of one strand of silk), woven with strands of polyester, polyamide, and polypropylene. Ultrasuede and Alcantara are the most well-known microsuedes.
Microfiber materials are often associated with microplastic pollution, are highly flammable and incineration releases toxic fumes. On the other hand, production has a very low water footprint, it’s highly stain-resistant, breathable, and offers comfort that comes close to leather.
Natural fabrics can also be left in a less refined state. Cotton, linen or hemp fabrics can be treated with a coating or wax to create a more resistant material. Waxed canvas is a thicker textile that has been impregnated with paraffin or natural beeswax. Though considered aesthetically pleasing and an affordable replacement of patent leathers, performance is often less durable (which can be overcome with regular maintenance). Some fabrics carry environmental concerns. Cotton uses extreme amounts of water. Materials like hemp offer more sustainable alternatives and contribute to restoring the soil.
With ‘new materials’, product developers and innovators explore the possibilities other materials offer. Not all of these are naturally suitable and used in the same sort of applications as leather. Much like leather, they require extensive treatment, chemicals, dyes and, in addition, antibacterial and antifungal agents (biocides) to make them non-degradable (only under limited anaerobic conditions plants don’t biodegrade). Some of them also require plastics to hold the materials together and fabric backings for strength and flexibility. Still, most of these lack the strength of a collagen structure and will not be able to handle the same usage as leather. Their main advantage is that they aren’t animal-based.
Paper & Rock
Though it may seem hard to believe, there are alternative materials made from paper and rock that are marketed as vegan leather alternatives. In fact, one of the first faux leathers called ‘presstoff’ was made with paper pulp and used for non-flexible leather applications. The modern-day version is a polymer-paper blend, meaning it is a plastic-composite. End of life treatment has shown the materials can’t be separated, meaning incineration is required. Another point is that this is likely not the most efficient way to recycle paper.
Slate and other rocks have also been turned into leather-like materials. The slight damaging throughout its use, give it a similarly worn look like leather. Yet, this inert material suffers from the same issue as the paper: it’s a plastic composite. Though both these directions offer interesting material experiments, we are left with plastics with additives.
One of the more famous stone-based materials is the North-Korean developed vinylon, a fabric made from coal and limestone as an alternative to nylon. Vinylon is labeled as a fabric, and has a wide range of applications, due to its stiffness and durability. Production is costly though and not very sustainable. If sourced from outside of North Korea is mostly petroleum-based. It is mostly used in products like backpacks.
Cork & Tree bark
Cork and tree bark can be sourced sustainably and cork trees contribute to CO2 absorption. The material itself is even biodegradable and recyclable and trees do not need to be cut down to source it. Where the bottle stoppers industry is considered, cork is an absolute better option over aluminum caps, but as a leather replacement, the question is more complicated. Both cork and tree bark materials are flexible but need a fabric backing. Chemical treatment and plasticizers are needed to make them durable enough for the market application, creating an issue at the product end of life with separating the materials (incineration is needed).
Kelp leather or ocean leather
It may seem that kelp is available in abundance, but trawling for it in waters disturbs ecosystems and potentially damages marine surfaces. Kelp forests are key for carbon-sequestration and extensive harvesting would therefore not be sustainable. The washed-up bits are not usable.
Fruit leather or apple/pineapple fiber
Turning the by-products of fruit harvest into materials is a sound plan, but in this case, the process to turn fibers into a leather-like material is not much different from leather. Much treatment and reliance on polyurethanes or PVC is required to make the material suitable for the market and even then, its durability is still in question. Pineapple actually needs a fabric backing due to its anisotropic nature and easy tearing, making its use virtually redundant as it’s basically a more resource-intensive form of making leatherette (a plastic coating with fabric backing).
There’s probably a number of other materials made from plant and tree fibers, but these are some that have seen quite some news coverage. At the core, they are similar materials made from industrial by-products. Agave, for example, is mostly used for tequila production. Leaf leather has an even loftier claim. Producers have stated they only use fallen teak leaves. Cacti leather, however, requires plants specifically grown to create the material (which is in essence a non-sustainable practice).
Collagen or lab-grown leathers
Numerous initiatives have popped up with the attempt to produce collagen (the material that makes up the protein structure of leather). Combining a lab-created material with 3D-printing technology is one solution to create leather, without animal sourcing. Yet, after a few years of experimenting with biotechnology and bioengineered materials, it’s grown quiet about the miracle-materials.
Grown leathers or collagen production is a process of biofabrication through cellular modification and genome editing, often associated with GMOs. In fact, we are talking about a derivative of the work done in health care when it comes to the creation of films that could potentially be used as surface material. Artists have already used grown leathers in installation to highlight the ethical dilemma involved in some of these materials. Production is also still extremely costly and little is known about the sustainability of the process
The use of fungi faces similar challenges. Growability is one major advantage of mycelium as it is crafted from cellular growth in a lab. The versatility of mycelium has been demonstrated, but its water uptake is an issue and so is large scale production.
More than anything, engineered materials face enormous design challenges. Though the material driven design is making many forward steps, showing us new possibilities, the disconnect between material and application is a major challenge. A case study that discusses growing design sees the acceptability of these materials as another hurdle (Karana et al, 2018).
The Eco-Friendly alternative?
Many of the traditional ‘vegan’ alternatives are in the end plastics. Certainly, some have diluted the content of plasticizer-heavy PVC and polyurethanes by adding natural materials or fabrics, but it’s not enough to make in an actual sustainable option. Patrick Grant, creative director of Norton & Sons, said to the Telegraph about a well-known fashion designer and vegan advocate: “Eighteen years ago, she had been telling people to switch from leather to polyurethane and now the fish have it inside them." Yet, plastics have a role to play and are vital in some applications and so do fabrics. Leather has unique applications where it fits best, but so do these.
Each material impacts our planet. Developments may seem promising; the reality of alternatives seems light-years away. With an ongoing effort to make materials like leather more sustainable, chemistry friendlier, and take care of end-of-life issues, we can do better. In the end, it’s also a personal choice, and faux leathers and alternatives will be produced as long as no clarity, transparency, and legislation are in place to prevent confusion about what is what.
Misuse of the term leather to describe other materials is opposed by many organizations. In some places, like Italy, misuse is even a legal offense now.
- Chapagain, A., Hoekstra, A., Savenije, H., Gautam, R. (2005) The Water Footprint of Cotton Consumption. UNESCO-IHE. Retrieved from: Water Footprint [Accessed on 7 Juli 2020]
- Fung, W. (2002) Coated and laminated textiles. Woodhead Publishing Limited, Cambridge, UK.
- Karana, E., Blauwhoff, D., Hultink, E. -J., & Camere, S. (2018). When the material grows: A case study on designing (with) mycelium-based materials. International Journal of Design, 12(2), 119-136.
- King, A.P., Landage, S.M, Wasif A.I. (February 2013) Nonwoven for Artificial Leather. International Journal of Advanced Research in Engineering and Applied Sciences, Vol. 2, No. 2. Retrieved from: GARPH [Accessed on 7 Juli 2020]
- Park, J. & Pearson, J. (2018) The Fabulous Story of North Korea’s Fabric made of Stone. Reuters Investigates. Retrieved from: Reuters [Accessed on 7 July 2020]
- Shakespeare, S. (2018, 10 October) BBC star Patrick Grant criticizes ethical Stella McCartney’s use of faux-leather as it is non-biodegradable. Retrieved from: Daily Mail [Accessed on 7 July 2020]