The 411 on leather alternatives

Written by Hannah Cole

Photography Supplied

Courtesy of mushroom, kombucha, pineapple and coconut, homegrown leather alternatives may soon flood our fashion feeds.

It is slightly disconcerting when you begin a Google search “Leather made from…” and “human skin” unexpectedly appears as the second result. Nonetheless, rest assured we are not venturing into cannibalism in today’s debrief. 

No doubt, leather serves as a contentious topic, along with its mock meat partners in the food industry. The debate draws focus on (a) animal cruelty and (b) environmental impact — both of which hold strong arguments. We all know livestock is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Add to that subsequent processes that prove harmful to both humans and the environment (particularly the toxic chemicals used in tanneries), and high wastage of animal skin due to natural factors like scars and blemishes. 

No matter which angle you look at it, there are faults which are drumming up a large crowd of ‘vegan-only’ fans. The backlash has driven many brands to investigate the animal-free alternative, but they aren’t necessarily better. ‘Vegan leather’ is the fancy, gentrified name for PVC (ie plastic). The petroleum-based material is far from natural, eco or sustainable. We’ll see that pleather jacket roasting in landfill for centuries to come. 

For far too long we’ve had to weigh up these two problem-addled options, so thank the scientific gods out there for new discoveries that could make their way into our wardrobes soon. Here is just the tip of the mighty iceberg.

Lab-Grown Leather
It’s the Impossible Burger of the fashion world. Lab-grown leather, specifically that created by US-based Modern Meadow, prides itself on creating leather — without the cow. In simple terms, the company has identified a process to grow a particular strain of yeast which produces collagen, the main protein in leather. Once solid, the ‘leather’ is given a specific aesthetic and quality depending on need and usage, whether paper-thin, glossy or stiff. With capabilities to create specific shapes and sizes, as requested by brands, there is a significant reduction in wastage and offers a consistently high-quality input. What’s next? Crocodile? 

Mushroom Leather
Who knew fungi had so many talents? The network of mycelium cells that work underground have been transplanted into the realm of fabrication by Bolt Threads, resulting in Mylo. The cells are grown in precisely controlled conditions until an intertwined mat forms. Once harvested, the matter is dyed and finished, ready for animal-free use. Not only is the turn-around incredibly fast (a matter of weeks), the resulting vegan offering is soft, supple and durable. So far, the queen of sustainability Stella McCartney has partnered with Mylo in creating a prototype handbag, so big things lie ahead. 

Kombucha Leather
Heal your gut and your wardrobe with a healthy dose of scoby goodness. It’s not a perfect solution; your garment could deteriorate and biodegrade before your very eyes. Kombucha leather does offer a healthy dose of experimentation and a bit of fun, though. Stained with fruit and vegetable dyes, or dipped in indigo for antimicrobial factors, the output is surprising (just watch this TED clip). Intrigued? You can even try this one at home

Pineapple Leather
Piñatex, made from discarded pineapple leaf fibre, has possibly made the most substantial impact on the industry so far. Ordinarily an agricultural waste product, the fibres are washed and dried, then finished with a resin coating to add strength and water resistance. Aside from its vegan qualities, the process has also helped build a new industry for developing farming communities in the Philippines. The nature of Piñatex makes it perfect for a range of outputs: bags, shoes, even clothing. H&M has dabbled in the past, but local accessory labels Ahimsa Collective and Felicity Cooney have also taken up the challenge. 

Coconut Water Leather 
The latest in dumb-founding uses for naturally occurring products, enter Malai. Created in Southern India and inspired by the wastage witnessed during coconut farming, the fibre is produced from waste coconut water which would otherwise be dumped. The resulting output is water-resistant, offering an ideal basis for bags and other typically leather accessories.

leather alternative

Stella McCartney handbag made from Mylo.

leather alternative

T-shirt made from mesh,
cotton and lab-grown leather.

leather alternative

Jacket by H&M made from Piñatex.

Clutch by Ahimsa Collective made from Piñatex.

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