Leather: What are the best vegan alternatives?

Read Time:   |  12th June 2019

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A material much loved by the fashion industry is soon to become something of a faux pas. As buyers begin to take an ethical standpoint, designers are opting for more sustainable, plant-based materials which are free from cruelty and big on style. From pineapples to mushrooms, leather is out. Plant-leather is in, says Charlotte Willis…


Fashion & Furnishings: Pineapple Leaf Fibre

A resourceful way to recycle pineapple leaves, this kind of fibre uses the commonly discarded parts of pineapple to create additional income for growers whilst preventing mass food waste.

The Process: The tops of the pineapple and the pineapple leaves are harvested alongside the fruit. The long fibres are extracted manually by the local farming communities using specially designed machinery supplied to them by the pineapple leather companies. The fibres are then de-gummed and woven into a mesh, which are rolled together later on. Any excess waste is used to create biofuel.

Qualities: Pineapple leaf fibre is extremely similar to animal skin: durable, water-resistant and breathable.

Where to buy: Excitingly, pineapple leaf fibre is one of the most abundant alternative fabrics on the market! You can find it being used to make shoes, handbags and accessories. One of the top brands is Piñatex — visit ananas-anam.com for more info.  

Water Resistant Coverings: Cork 

Cork is harvested from mature cork trees, which are mainly found in rural Portugal. It’s lightweight as well as being more durable than leather. 

The Process: Once the cork bark is harvested, the bare trees are then marked with a year of harvest and not stripped again for another 10 years. Whilst the process is seemingly destructive, the cork tree is extremely resilient — in fact it can be harvested every 10 years over a 200 year lifespan! The cork is then boiled, dyed and treated.

Qualities: Cork is water-resistant and easily recycled. It retains a natural-looking fabric quality with an organic texture. 

Where to buy: Cork is often used as a protective covering on notebooks and smartphones. You can purchase from specialist crafters like malloryjournals.etsy.com (shown above). 

Breathable Shoes and Boots: Mushrooms

Often known as MuSkin, mushroom leather is made from the caps of the phellinus ellipsoideus mushroom species, which is native to subtropical forests. The fungus wraps itself around tree trunks to feed and grow. This material grows at a rate of 1 inch per week, creating the area equivalent to a fully-grown cow hide in just two months! Other mushroom-based leather alternatives are grown using mushroom mycelium — the fibrous network of threads which spread laterally through the soil, providing the mushroom with nutrients. 

The Process: Once the mushroom is harvested from the tree, it is then treated and processed in a similar way to animal skins, yet it’s biodegradable, natural and uses non-toxic processing agents. What you end up with is a strong and sewable fabric resembling traditional leather and the texture of suede. 

Qualities: MuSkin is completely biodegradable, water resistant, tan- and dye-absorbent, versatile, easy to sew and completely breathable. What makes mushroom leather so unique is its incredible ability to prevent bacterial proliferation and growth. This is because the fabric absorbs damp and moisture, and then immediately releases it, acting as a sort of dehumidifier ideal for use on shoes and boots. Initial studies also suggest that MuSkin is hypoallergenic too!

Where to buy: This is an emerging technology, so few UK websites carry MuSkin at present. This is set to change, as this exciting new fabric has serious potential! 

Tough Durable Accessories: Recycled Inner Tyres and Rubber

Recycled rubber is sourced from inner tyres, industrial materials and household throw-aways. Recycling rubber is a fantastic way to reuse a hard-to-break-down fabric, transforming it from trash to treasure. 

The Process: Used rubber is collected, washed and cut into the desired thickness and length to be used in further manufacture. The colour of the rubber is rarely altered, as this would require heavy-duty chemical processing. 

Qualities: Rubber is naturally stain and scuff resistant as well as waterproof. It is also extremely durable, which makes it a perfect material for use in a variety of accessories — from boots and bags to belts and wallets. 

Where to buy: Rubber leather alternatives can be bought from online websites such as Paguro Upcycle (paguroupcycle.com). Here, you’ll find a range of unique and individual rubber accessories such as cuffs, earrings and necklaces (shown below) as well as bags and belts. 

Waterproof Handbags & Wallets: Apple Fibres

Apple leather uses the discarded skin from the fruit juice and apple-processing industry, to produce an innovative leather substitute from food waste. Creeping its way onto the fashion scene, apple leather brand Frumat was also used at the 2017 Millan Green Carpet Fashion Awards by designer Matea Benedetti.

The Process: The apple peel is mulched down into a powder or paste and then processed into a sort of pliable pasta sheet, which is pressed and
set. This inventive way of recycling waste from the food industry is an ideal bio-alternative to leather. 

Qualities: Apple leather retains heat, whilst remaining breathable and water resistant. 

Where to buy: There are currently only a few companies using apple leather. These include Ashoka Paris, Veggani and Watson & Wolfe (watsonwolfe.com) who manufacture beautiful wallets and purses.

Footware, Upholstery & Accessories: Coconut Leather

You’ve heard of coconut water, coconut sugar, coconut flour and coconut nectar. But coconut leather — that’s a new one! An ingenious way of recycling waste from the coconut industry, this biocomposite material is made from bacterial cellulose, grown from culturing waste coconut water.

The Process: The fabric, known as malai, is grown using waste from farmers and processing units in Southern India. The waste coconut water is harvested and used to feed the growth of bacterial cellulose. The cellulose is cultured and grown, before being extracted and treated to create a leather-like fabric sheet in an array of thicknesses and shapes. The malai is then dyed using non-toxic colourants before being stitched together to
make accessories. 

Qualities: Coconut leather is flexible, durable, water resistant and hypoallergenic.

Where to buy: This fabric is yet to hit the mainstream, but we hope to see it emerge in the near future. You can find out more by searching for ’malai’ online. 


Written by

Charlotte Willis

Charlotte Willis is an Assistant Psychologist at the University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and has a MS degree in Clinical Neuropsychiatry from Kings College London. Charlotte is also a marketer for ethical brands, author of Vegan: Do It! A young person’s guide to living a vegan lifestyle, and a regular contributor to sustainability and plant-based publications.

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