Fruit Shoes and Mushroom Boots, How Alternative Materials are Reshaping the Leather Industry

For many, the luxury and elegance of leather goods often belies the ugly truth that the leather industry worldwide is a significant contributor to the degradation of our natural environment. The process of refining animal skins into leather is very chemical-reliant, and often these processes are done in places in the world where environmental regulations are quite lax. It’s so bad that often these toxic chemicals that contain carcinogens such as chromium gets dumped into waterways that are used downstream for drinking water. Yet, as climate and environmental awareness become more and more mainstream, this industry, like many others, is undergoing a dramatic shift. These alternatives, like mycelium, pineapples, and cacti, are not exactly what many would expect. The leaders in this new age of leather manufacturing are utilizing materials many would more often see on their dinner plates than on their feet. 

Carmen Hijosa PhD is an entrepreneur who recognized this problem and founded Ananas Anam in 2013 to do her part in rectifying this issue. Shocked and horrified by her experiences seeing the leather manufacturing process in the 1990s, she developed Piñatex, a non-degradable leather product made from discarded pineapple leaves. Working with Filipino farmers to harvest what was once considered an agricultural byproduct, she has developed a leather alternative that costs less, on the environment and our pockets, and weighs less than traditional leather. 

Philip Ross is an artist, chef, and entrepreneur who launched Mycoworks in 2020. He began cultivating mycelium as a material for art and design, and eventually drew the attention of Sophia Wong in 2007, who together went on to create Mycoworks. The duo grows the mycelium in 3d structures that shape and form the material, leaving almost no byproduct or waste. The mycelium is fed a mixture of sawdust and other organic materials, creating a dense strong material that can be used in a variety of different applications. 

Desserto is a cactus based leather designed and developed by Adrián López Velarde, and Marte Cázarez from the Nopal cactus, more commonly known as the prickly pear cactus. Finished in 2019, the creators say that the product saves 164,650% of water compared to animal leather, and 190% compared to polyurethane based vegan leather. Due to cacti being plants, they sequester carbon in the same way trees do. As well as that, on their 14 acres of land that they grow on they employ organic farming techniques and use the byproducts for animal feed.

Many assume that real leather is the best and only way to wear these kinds of goods. But these companies prove that they are only the beginning of a larger trend towards cleaner, safer, and healthier products for us, and the world we live in. 

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