Vegan Alternatives to Conventional Leather That are Shaping the Future of Sustainable Fashion

6 innovative materials that you probably don’t know exist.

Red wine grapea vegan leather

The hunt for materials that have a significantly less negative impact on the environment than traditional materials is well underway. Retailers and consumers alike are seeking clothing and accessories that were produced sustainably and remain unharmful to the environment at the end of their cycle.

Nina Marenzi, the founder of The Sustainable Angle, a not-for-profit organisation, explains that “people are reassessing what the raw materials of the future should be, and the sector is booming like never before”. She continues, “People have realised that actually, we’re sitting on a gold mine, which is waste”.

The use of agricultural waste is particularly on the rise, as companies are finding a purpose for formerly discarded by-products through the creation of innovative materials. This article explores five sustainable vegan alternatives to the ultra-traditional material, leather.

Since its invention thousands of years ago, leather remains one of the most popular, durable, and versatile materials. However, people are growing increasingly conscious of the ethical ramifications and the toll on the environment resulting from the mass-producing leather industry. This shift has resulted in synthetic vegan alternatives, many of which have received the cruelty-free label, but not an environmentally-friendly one, as they present the same disposal issues as plastic. Thankfully, over the past few decades, increased motivation and remarkable creativity have produced some interesting, organic innovations.

Piñatex (Pineapple Leather)

Pineapples fruit vegan leather

Concerned about the consequences of mass leather production and chemical tanning, leather expert Dr Carmen Hijosa set out to discover a sustainable alternative to leather, one greater than PVC alternatives, that had a positive social, economic, and environmental impact.

Some time later, Dr Hijosa developed a viable supply chain by using fibres from pineapple leaves — a by-product of the pineapple harvest — to produce a natural, cruelty-free, leather-like material that she calls, Piñatex.

The production process

The plant leaves left behind following pineapple harvest are collected, washed, dried (either by the sun or in drying ovens throughout the rainy season), and impurities are removed. The purification process turns the long, dry fibres fluffy, and once mixed with a corn-based polylactic acid (PCA), a mechanical process creates a non-woven mesh called Piñafelt.

This mesh is then shipped by boat from the Philippines to Italy or Spain to undergo a specialised finishing process, which gives it a leather-like texture. The material is coloured using GOTS-certified pigments, and a resin top coating is applied to achieve water resistance, durability, and strength. Unfortunately, it has been pointed out that, supposedly, this coating is petroleum-based; however, the company is working to create a bio-based method.

How sustainable is Piñatex?

Aside from the transport emissions and the allegedly not-so-environmentally-friendly finishing process, it seems that Dr Hijosa is close to accomplishing her goal, as Piñatex is almost entirely sustainably sourced, biodegradable, and creates an additional income for farming communities. In Dr Hijosa’s words, “design is a connecting tool between people, economics, and the environment — and out of this communion, understanding, and respect, new ideas and products with integrity can come about.”

Popularity and future prospects

Currently, the material is primarily produced by Dr Hijosa’s U.K.-based company Ananas Anam, but has been used by over one thousand brands and has swiftly gained popularity within the footwear industry. Piñatex has been used as a vegan alternative to regular leather in several footwear collections, including one by the luxury German brand, Hugo Boss. This innovative material is one to watch. It has already made its red-carpet debut; eco-fashion activist Livia Firth shone at the 2017 Met Gala in a Piñatex Laura Strambi dress.

Frumat (Apple Leather)

Apple tree sun sky vegan leather

Another vegan alternative to leather is apple leather, initially referred to in its birth country, Italy, as Pellemela. An Italian company called Frumat, founded by Hannes Parth, specialises in recycling industrial waste and created this leather alternative through recycling waste from the apple juice industry.

The production process

Mabel SRL, located in Florence, Italy, is the company that manufactures the material. The company works mainly with apple farms in the Italian Alps and obtains the discarded skin, pulp, and pips from the apples.

The apple waste is naturally dried and ground into powder; then, this powder is combined with polyurethane and pigments and spread onto a canvas until it forms a leathery sheet. The finished product can be worked into different textures and levels of thickness, so the company has two lines of production: a relatively thin and soft version is made for clothing, and a sturdier, thicker version containing 50% apple fibre and 50% polyurethane is used for shoes, luggage bags, and furniture. This versatile material can also be embossed, laser-printed, easily personalised, and produced on demand.

How sustainable is Frumat?

Frumat is helping to combat food waste, supporting the local economy, and reducing transport emissions by sourcing locally. Consistent with Piñatex, as the apple waste is a by-product that would otherwise be discarded, no other environmental source is needed to produce the material. Additionally, this high-performing material is not only an alternative to leather but also paper, as it is being employed in the production of stationery products and packaging.

Popularity and future prospects

This bio-based material is waterproof, breathable, ultra-durable, entirely biodegradable, and chiefly used to make handbags, purses, wallets, and trainers. Zilver, a sustainable Brazilian brand, created biker jackets and trousers that, according to Drapers Magazine, were sturdy and indistinguishable from genuine leather.

Deservingly, in 2018, at the Green Carpet Fashion Awards in Milan, Frumat won the Technology and Innovation Award. Proud of his creation, Parth notes that, to him, ‘Made in Italy’ symbolises innovation, attention to detail, and imagination.

Grape/Wine Leather

Red grapes fruit vegan leather

Also co-opted for sustainable purposes is waste from the wine-making industry. A material referred to as grape leather or wine leather was developed by Vegea, an Italian start-up company founded in 2016 by Milan-based architect Gianpiero Tessitore. Whilst working on his furniture designs, Tessitore became frustrated by the lack of a genuinely sustainable alternative to animal and synthetic leather and, with the intention to find one, joined forces with an industrial chemist, Francesco Merlino.

Fast forward three years, the duo discovered that grape marc — that is, grape skin, seeds, and stems discarded during wine production — was the recipe for the leather alternative for which they had been searching.

The production process

Unfortunately, the precise production process remains a business secret. All we know is that the grape marc is collected, dried, and undergoes a Vegea-developed chemical process before the basis of the material is formed. The finished product is supposedly soft, smooth, and supple, with a leather-like feel.

How sustainable is grape/wine leather?

Vegea reassures consumers that all products are entirely recyclable and comply with the REACH regulation, which means that no harmful substances are involved in the production process. Additionally, the company sources locally, which, consistent with Frumat, reduces transport emissions and supports Italy’s economy.

Popularity and future prospects

It is clear that Vegea has a bright future ahead, as it won H&M’s Global Change Award in 2017, receiving an investment of €300,000 to develop the material further, and the European Parliament recognises it as one of the greatest European start-ups of the new millennium. Financed by the European Union Horizon (a research and innovation programme), the project is still in the start-up phase with plans to begin the industrialisation process in 2022.

Still, companies are knocking on Vegea’s door. The material has already made it onto the red carpet; Bandana Tewari, a contributor to The Business of Fashion and member of the expert panel, wore sandals and a clutch made from this leather alternative to the 2019 Global Change Award ceremony, hosted in Stockholm City Hall. Additionally, Bentley announced that same year that it had selected Vegea leather for the interior of its new model of car. Following Vegea’s Global Change Award win, the company collaborates with fashion giant H&M to help it achieve its goal to use only entirely sustainable materials by 2030.

Mycelium (Mushroom Leather)

Mushroom Mycelium leather

Another example of a by-product from the food industry being recycled to create a sustainable material is mycelium leather (mycelium is the root of the mushroom). According to WTVOX, a sustainable fashion magazine, 2012 was the year that the idea to create a leather-like material from mycelium was hatched. Product designers Philip Ross and Jonas Edvard began to experiment with homeware products made from mycelium and discovered the potential of this organic material.

The production process

The process begins with selecting and moisturising the appropriate substrates — that is, materials that the mushrooms feed on — which are typically dampened and pasteurised sawdust, corn cobs, and straw. This mixture is inserted into bags with mushroom spores to create the perfect breeding ground for mushrooms. As the mycelium grows, it self-assembles into a strong, 3D mesh-like structure. When the desired size is achieved, it is extracted from the bags and compressed, during which process the manufacturer can dye and alter its texture to create a leather-like finish. Finally, the material is dried and becomes viable. According to The Conversation, a news source, the process is relatively simple and requires little time and minimal equipment and resources.

How sustainable is mycelium?

In the fashion industry, this material is hailed as an incredibly eco-friendly leather alternative. It is produced without any polluting substance, is CO2 neutral and biodegradable, and the production process is entirely closed loop, which means that the materials used in manufacturing are all recycled waste products. In this process, the substrates that are combined with the mushroom spores to produce the mycelium can be reused afterwards as crop fertiliser. It comes as no surprise that mycelium leather has already caught the eye of influential names in the industry, such as Stella McCartney.

Popularity and future prospects

McCartney created a prototype of her Falabella bag, which, along with other prototypes released in recent years of watches, bags, and shoes, exemplified the material’s durability. Interestingly, likely a result of its durability, this material is reaching beyond the fashion industry.

Inspired by nature, Nir Meiri founded Nir Meiri Design Studio in 2010, and in 2018, went on to collaborate with BIOHM, a London-based start-up company. Together, they combined mycelium with metal, which resulted in an exceptionally originally lamp collection, described by the luxury magazine, Luxiders, as reminiscent of wild mushrooms with captivating minimalism (see image above).

Other companies worldwide are discovering the advantages of mycelium leather, as it is breathable, flexible, and robust. However, the development process is still in its infancy, and the material is not yet widely available. Mychotech, a start-up company in Indonesia, is producing mycelium shoes in high demand, taking orders for as far in advance as 2027, and anticipating that this fungi-derived leather may well become a strong competitor for traditional leather.

Cactus Leather

Green Cactus Leather Bag Vegan Alternative

After two years of research and development, a Mexican brand called Desserto created cactus-based leather, made from nopal cactus leaves. A company called Adriano Di Marti, owned by entrepreneurs Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez, debuted its innovative brand Desserto at the International Leather Lineapelle in Milan in 2019. Not long thereafter, it was presented at Raw Assembly, an event in Australia where raw, sustainable materials are sourced. Raw Assembly’s founder Thea Speechley was delighted to have the material a mere few weeks after its launch, and Vogue Australia reported that, of all the brands at the event, Desserto created the most buzz.

The production process

With 14 hectares to cultivate nopals, the process begins by cutting the mature leaves off the cacti while leaving the small ones to grow for several months. In their patented process, once the leaves are cut, Desserto washes and mashes them and allows the mash three days to dry naturally under the Mexican sun. Once dry, non-toxic chemicals are added, and the product is shaped and coloured as appropriate. It takes approximately three leaves to create one linear meter of the material.

The finished product is soft, breathable, durable, and is of high enough quality that it can be used to make not only clothing and accessories but car interiors and furniture. Desserto predicts that its durability and high resistance will ensure that the material will retain its quality for a minimum of ten years and is working to build a grand network.

How sustainable is cactus leather?

The idea to make sustainable leather stemmed from the founders’ concern for the plastic pollution crisis, and they were intrigued by the nopal cactus because it grows in abundance throughout Mexico whilst regenerating soil and without requiring any water.

Additionally beneficial to the environment, the growth of cacti absorbs carbon dioxide; according to the brand’s website, while the production generates only 15.30 tonnes of CO2 each year, Desserto’s cacti absorb 8,100 tonnes. Once cut, the plants remain unharmed and are available for repeat harvest every 6-8 months.

The material is made without toxic chemicals, phthalates, and PVC and is organic and partially biodegradable. Along with helping the environment, López Velarde and Marte Cázarez also hope to create jobs and are keen to co-exist with the food industry as a single crop can provide for both.

Popularity and future prospects

The founders of Desserto have no plans to make their own products but are eager to sell the fabric to other designers and fashion brands. In an interview, López Velarde told Fashion United that the biggest challenge they have encountered is finding a way to offer small quantities of the material to make it accessible for small and medium-sized companies, but they are currently working on this.

While it’s still a relatively recent innovation, cactus leather has already gained considerable attention from designers and companies worldwide, and Desserto is currently working on big projects in different industries. At the Lineapelle, a presenter in the innovation and sustainability forum commented that the material was the most appropriate leather alternative for luxury brands, owing to its softness, flexibility, and colour.

Despite considering the material highly suitable and available, López Velarde and Marte Cázarez explain that research and development have not ended, as they will continue to work to secure a bright, long future for the material. In their own words, “cactus is green, and so is the future”.

Kombucha Leather

Kombucha tea

If you are not a kombucha drinker, kombucha is a fermented, sweetened tea with a light fizz, commonly consumed for its supposed health benefits. As it turns out, the live cultures, called SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), that kombucha is fermented with can also be turned into a leather alternative.

This process was discovered by fashion designer and author Suzanne Lee during the BioCouture project. Not long thereafter, others began to experiment with growing their own kombucha leather, including fashion designer Taylor Wilson.

The production process

As a SCOBY feeds on a mixture of tea, sugar, and water, it grows thicker and, over a period of several weeks, produces fibres of cellulose that form a thick, gel-like mat at the top of the liquid. Once the desired size is achieved, which depends on the size of the container in which the SCOBY grows, it is harvested and left to dry to be used as material, which can be cut and sewn.

Beware that the finished product is not waterproof, cannot withstand extreme heat, and lacks the same durability as animal leather. With that being said, the perks are worth the purchase. What makes this material exceptionally unique is that it can repair itself; if an item is damaged, it can regenerate when added to the same solution that created it. Furthermore, Taylor Wilson’s creations are a testament to the creative opportunities that this material offers: before the mat had dried, Wilson added threads on top which then fused into the material, delivering exquisite results (see image above).

How sustainable is kombucha leather?

This material is organic, biodegradable, and unlike traditional leather, does not require chemical-based tanning and is not resource-intensive. Any environmental impact is very minimal and short-lived. In fact, Wilson states that this material has the opportunity to be zero waste, as the SCOBY can be used repeatedly to make more material.

Popularity and future prospects

An array of products can be made from kombucha leather, and its incredibly soft texture supposedly offers greater comfort than traditional leather. Galina Mihaleva, a Bulgarian-born fashion designer, has set up a lab to produce this material and, whilst acknowledging that it is a long way off from becoming mainstream, has faith in the search for sustainable, vegan alternatives to traditional leather, and hopes that the fashion industry will embrace all that SCOBY has to offer.

As demonstrated in this article, by-products of the food and drink industries are playing a considerable role in the development of material innovations that are both sustainable and vegan. It is heartening to witness these innovations come to light and embark upon a journey to commercial viability. As awareness of the importance of adopting more sustainable practices in the fashion industry continues to grow, hopefully, dependence on animal leather and non-renewable materials will lessen.

An edition of this article was originally published at

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