With the fashion industry’s growing focus on sustainability, the popularity of animal-free “alt leathers” is on the rise. Brands such as Lerins, Allbirds, Hermès, Reformation, and Stella McCartney are using plant-based leather alternatives that upcycle existing waste streams and avoid the environmental problems associated with cattle farming.
While sustainable fashion is a relatively new phenomenon, some of it can be traced back to the days when radical vegans would point at people’s shoes and suede-shame anybody they noticed wearing the ecologically unsound option of leather. It has taken a while for the fashion industry to react to the waste and pollution once etched in rose gold across their Dolce & Gabbana leather hearts, but change is happening fast now.
As fashion turns more sustainable and begins to offer greener options, “alt leathers” made from plant-based materials are becoming increasingly popular. Brands like Lerins, a new sustainable trainer line launched by Dune founder Daniel Rubin, are using leather-like materials created from grape skins left over from winemaking. This upcycling method is also used for “leathers” made from apples, bananas, and pineapples, and it’s becoming a mainstream alternative to traditional leather. Fashion house Hermes took a step towards fashion sustainability credentials recently with a high fashion handbag made from mycelium leather – a new material made from specially grown mushrooms.
Plant-based leathers are environmentally friendly, as they avoid issues related to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and animal welfare. Popular brands like Allbirds, Hermès, Reformation, and Stella McCartney are among those using plant-based alternatives. Even Leonardo DiCaprio and Kering, parent company of fashion brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Balenciaga, invested in a Californian lab-grown leather startup, VitroLabs. The lab-grown leather process involves cultivating stem-cells to replicate animal hides, making the leather as strong and long-lasting as traditional leather.
The future of plant-based leather is looking bright, with fashion industry insiders excited about the development. While it is challenging for plant-based leather alternatives to compete with the durability of bovine leather, the industry is working to find solutions. Many of these leather alternatives use a polyurethane (PU) coating to improve durability, which raises concerns about plastic use. However, brands like Vegea and Allbirds claim to have developed environmentally responsible polyurethane alternatives, while the plant leather developed by Allbirds is 100% plastic-free.
The plant-based leather industry is committed to developing more sustainable solutions, and competition among brands will drive this innovation. Sustainable fashion is taking over, and consumers can expect to see more grape, cactus, kombucha, and mushroom leathers in the future.