In the year of our lord 2021, mink-lined coats and crocodile leather are no longer the apex of luxury. But you won't catch us crying over here. With the world in its current state, we can no longer sweep the ethics of fur and non-renewable animal products under the cowhide rug. Things inevitably had to change. The good news is that the urgency of the climate crisis has led scientists and designers to seek out new alternatives to materials like leather, all of which can be housed under the category 'vegan leather'. But as we've come to discover this is not exactly a realm without its own share of challenges.
In the age of greenwashing and inevitably with any new discovery, it can be difficult to cut through the jargon surrounding concepts like vegan leather. Just because PVC isn't made from the skin of a cow, doesn't necessarily guarantee that it's better for the environment, as Tessa Carroll for leather goods label A_C Official reminds us. It's an area Carroll is deeply committed to debunking and demystifying. After all, the one of the core tenets that drive her work at A_C Official is transparency.
Is vegan leather good quality?
One of the first questions that is asked about vegan leather is if it's quality stands up to the original. In all honesty, it depends on what material the "leather" is made from. PVC or Pleather reacts very differently when compared with something like cork, and peels over time. Whereas vegan leather crafted from silica sand is lauded for its durability. For a more in depth explainer see Tessa Carroll's description, below.
What is vegan leather made of?
In the interest of transparency and continuing our commitment to the environment, we caught up with Tessa Carroll who took us through a non-exhaustive list of the different vegan leathers currently on the market, how they're made and their true environmental impact. Below, find answers to your questions around PVC, cork, mushroom leather and so many more...
P.U. & PVC
Also known as polyurethane or polyvinyl-chloride respectively, these are the most common and lowest cost vegan leathers. Why? To put it simply… because they’re plastic. Plastic means oil, oil means drilling, drilling means… well pretty sure you get the gist. In fact, this textile is the inspiration behind the word Pleather. It’s the kind of material you would find at the ‘Dangerfields’ of the 90’s and peels as it ages. It’s had its own rebrand and now has iterations such as ‘Eco P.U’ or ‘Recycled P.U’ which is undeniably better than its virgin originals, however, it is still plastic and it still does not have an end of life plan for once it is no longer usable.
A less common alternative, cork is actually a relatively solid choice if you’re wanting something strictly eco-friendly. Being harvested from cork trees, cork leather aids in planting more trees which means more CO2 absorption. The cork bark is also a layer stripped from the tree whilst keeping it alive, meaning no tree death! The tree can continue producing the bark which can continue to be harvested without any real detriment to the soil. Plus, being a natural product, it can be recycled and is biodegradable. Unfortunately, its appearance doesn’t do much to rival the real deal but that’s down to personal choice.
Piñatex AKA Pineapple Leather
This textile was what we used for our first A_C collection and as a leather innovation it is the gift that keeps on giving. Pinatex is made from the discarded leaves of the pineapple plant and the biogas produced by the harvest can be captured to run the machinery. This provides a secondary stream of income to the pineapple farmers and injects infrastructure into the communities who previously earned money through the existing pineapple farming industry only. Pinatex’s texture is crinkly and looks like an elephant style leather finish and there are a wide variety of colours available.
Desserto Cactus Leather
Launched officially in 2020, the innovators of Desserto cactus leather were the quickest to market and have been the largest scaled leather-look innovator since the industry started looking for a solution to P.U. and animal leather. Desserto is made from the proteins of the Prickly Pear, otherwise known as Nopal. It is by far the most successful and sustainable alternative on the market in terms of carbon released (or captured!) and its appearance. The cactus plant is harvested every 6-8 weeks but only the top leaves, therefore the plant stays in the ground and the carbon is not released. It also draws nutrients down into the soil, enriching the area and enabling other flora to flourish in the region. While Desserto is not fully biodegradable and does contain 1-2% poly on its surface, they are improving this with every iteration and are currently up to 92% in some of their options.
New on the scene and relatively unheard of is the Silica sand-based leather alternative, Sileather. We have recently started working with this innovation due to its 100% recyclability and the fact it is entirely PVC and PU free. Its texture and durability is second to none. It doesn’t feel like leather - it actually feels even better! We have developed our own custom colours and finishes and will be releasing more in this textile in the coming months.
This is set to be the best innovation we’re going to see in the leather alternative space however it’s currently still under wraps with a number of big brands reportedly exploring their options. Mushroom leather actually has nothing to do with portobello or shiitake despite its misleading name. It is made of mycelium which is the lattice-like network of fungi. To simplify that - mushrooms are essentially the fruit of mycelium. Mushroom leather is able to be ‘grown’ and then compressed in the textures, weights and colours desired. As mentioned, it’s not commercially viable or available for many designers to work with yet. But, spoiler alert, we are currently sampling with mycelium leather and hope to have a range to market by the end of 2022. It will be a long journey to get to a fully commercial and affordable offering, however all of the innovations we’ve worked with have been and we’re ready for the next challenge.