In the previous post, I looked at whether vegan leathers are actually sustainable; but how do you even go about sourcing a sustainable leather alternative? And are they any different to use?
Right now, we’re seeing the development of some pretty exciting technologies which will help everyone to reduce their reliance on plastic based products. Technologies such as producing synthetic textiles from natural materials are just coming onto the market, and in a few years they should be widely accessible – bio-nylon being one such example which is now making its way into consumer markets (those of you who spin your own yarns can get your hands on some from World of Wool). Amongst these new developments are a growing number of leather alternatives made from a variety of sustainable and renewable materials, providing an alternative to both animal leather and fossil fuel based faux leathers. But how do you actually go about sourcing them?
If you own, work for, or are considering setting up a small fashion business, you have perhaps slightly more options than the average home sewist. The main reason for this is that many of the companies developing sustainable vegan leathers will only deal directly with other companies – businesses tend to order higher quantities of fabric than an individual will ever need and so it makes sense financially for them to only deal with other companies. Fashion businesses can also help market the leather alternative, encouraging more demand and thereby enabling the scaling up of production, which in turn (thanks to economies of scale) brings costs down. Finally, you’ll also likely be working with (or at least considering working with) factories around the world who can produce your items for the markets in their areas, meaning you have a whole lot more options when it comes to the materials you have available in those areas.
Let’s say you’re launching a new brand of trainers. You have factories in Europe, South East Asia and the Americas and want to use sustainable leather alternatives that come from those areas. Well, you have access to an array of options which can also be marketed as exclusive in those regions – the design of the trainers might be the same, but trainers made from cork will look (and feel) quite different to trainers made from cactus leather. Suddenly, from one design, you can create an entire range of trainers depending on the market you’re making and selling them in. You can already see this type of application among different animal leathers – stingray skin, goat leather and ostrich leather, for example, all have very different qualities and defining visual features – so why not use the defining features of different sustainable vegan leathers to your advantage?
At present, the range of sustainable leather alternatives available to the general public is pretty small. As yet, there aren’t many distributors of sustainable vegan leathers, so it’s not easy for fabric shops to get their hands on them. Some manufacturers will sell directly to the public, but they tend to have a minimum amount that you need to order – perhaps a metre, sometimes more. A metre might not sound like a lot to sewists who may be used to ordering 3 or 4 metres to make clothes with, but if all you need is a fat quarter’s worth, then what do you do with the rest?
Another problem you may face as a home sewist is how well labelled the leather alternative is. Many leather alternatives require a backing fabric, but it’s not always clear what this backing is made from. Even cork, which is the most widely available and easily accessible of leather alternatives, can have a huge amount of plastic attached to it in its backing, but you might never know this from the information you have access to as a consumer.
Sustainable leather alternatives and where to source them
Material source: Cork Oak trees (Quercus suber)
Region: Mediterranean forests of Europe and North Africa, mostly found in Portgual and Spain
Harvesting method: the cork oak is one of only a handful of trees which can survive having its bark removed. The tree can grow to two hundred years old, so it can produce many harvests of cork in its lifetime, and there are strict rules regarding how often harvests can take place and by whom – only those who are specially trained in removing cork bark can harvest cork and the tree must be allowed to recover in between harvests, which is usually a period of 7-12 years. Removing bark from living trees ensures you aren’t affecting the overall biodiversity or health of the forests in which they live and the forest overall enjoys a large degree of legal protection – in Portugal it is illegal to cut down cork oaks unless very specific circumstances mean it is the only option.
Fabric production: cork is cut into blocks when it is harvested, and different qualities of cork may be assigned to different uses. Cork designated for fabric is cut extremely thin and the fabric is created by layering these thin sheets over one another and glueing them into place – that’s why you’ll often see lines and squares in cork fabric, as this is where different sheets of cork have been ‘welded’ together.
Backing: cork fabric does require backing, and this is where it can get a little hazy as to how sustainable cork actually is. While cork as a fabric has been around for quite some time, it’s only recently that cork with vegetable backings (i.e. cotton) has become easily accessible. It’s therefore quite possible that if the fabric shop you’re buying from doesn’t state what the backing material is, it’ll be a synthetic backing (like polyurethane) or a polyester/cotton blend, making it not as sustainable as you originally thought. Cork backed with vegetable fibres (including denim) is often glued and treated only with water based chemicals, making it far less toxic for workers and making it far more sustainable.
Where to source: cork is widely available to both businesses and home sewists – though if you’re looking for vegetable backed cork, I’d recommend going to Folclore Crafts. You can buy cork from here in fat quarters or by the yard, and for businesses they do wholesale prices over 10 metres.
Material source: Prickly Pear cacti (Opuntia)
Harvesting method: only the mature leaves of cultivated prickly pear cacti (which are native to Mexico) are harvested, and this occurs approximately once every 6-8 months. The cacti live for around 8 years, offering many harvests in their lifetime – during which time they are excellent carbon sinks and require very little water, absorbing much of what they need from the humid air around them. The skin of the cacti leaves is used to make fabric, while the rest of the leaves have a variety of uses – including food, bioplastics and fuels.
Fabric production: once the mature leaves are cut, they are dried in the sun for three days before being processed into leather. It doesn’t require a backing fabric, as the skin of prickly pears is notoriously thick, meaning that cactus leather is fully biodegradable. Just three cacti leaves are needed to make a linear metre (1.4m wide) of cactus leather.
Where to source: currently, the only producer of cactus leather is Desserto, and you need to go directly to them to source their leather. However, this does give a little more assurance on the sustainability of the material, as they are extremely open about their carbon footprint and farming practices on their ranch. It appears that both businesses and consumers can purchase from them, with the minimum order for stock leathers being one metre – though for custom leathers the minimum quantity goes up to 300 metres.
Material source: Apple (Malus domestica)
Fabric production: Apple leather is made from the waste products of cider and apple juice production, namely the pulp produced from pressing the fruit to release the juice. It’s blended with up to 50% other sustainable materials (the manufacturers are very clear that it must be sustainable and plastic free to form part of their leather) and processed into the correct size and thickness.
Where to source: there are a few different places to get apple based leather, though I would recommend keeping an eye on Beyond Leather. They hold sustainability very close to their core (pun intended!) and so will only use truly sustainable materials and pigments in the creation of their leather. It’s not yet available, but should be brought to market some time later this year.
Material source: Mango (Mangifera)
Region: South East Asia (processed in the Netherlands)
Fabric production: mango leather is made from mangos which would otherwise be food waste. The process uses the flesh and skin of the mango. Like cork, it does require a backing fabric, though the fabric is dependant on the thickness and use of the mango leather and so some may be backed with polycottons or synthetic fibres, while others are backed with vegetable fibres such as organic cotton. It’s not water resistant like most of the other fabrics on this list, though you can apply a wax coating to improve its water repellance.
Where to source: currently you can only purchase directly from the manufacturers, Fruitleather Rotterdam. They state that they only work with brands, however you can purchase small sheets of mango leather from their online shop (approximately 60x40cm), so home sewists may be able to get hold of some.
Material source: Bacteria which feed on coconuts
Fabric production: waste materials from the coconut agricultural industry in India are used to grow specific bacteria in order to produce the materials required for coconut leather – 4,000 litres of waste coconut water can be used to produce 320 square metres of coconut leather.
Where to source: You can buy coconut leather directly from the manufacturers, Malai. You can buy just one sheet (120x80cm) if you wish, so home sewists can use this fabric if they choose, or there’s discounts for companies buying 50 metres or more.
Material source: Mycelium is the fine, fiberous ‘nervous system’ of funghi
Fabric production: mycelium cells are grown into the size, shape, density and texture required on a bed of organic materials. The ‘network’ of mycelium is then tanned and dyed to form a leather-like material.
Where to source: There are a couple of companies producing mycelium leather, namely Reishi and Bolt Threads. It’s currently only available to businesses, but I think this is one we’ll see become available to home sewists in a few years time.
Material source: Anything from coffee grounds, to vine leaves, to shellfish
Fabric production: depending on the raw materials, the process will be quite different, however one key factor in bioleathers is the commitment to being sustainable and plastic free.
Where to source: Tômtex is a manufacturer of bioleather (made from a combination of shellfish chitin and coffee grounds) based in Vietnam, while Vegea use waste products from the Italian wine industry to produce bio-based textiles, yarns and plastics. Modern Meadow are a Chinese based company making bioleathers from plant proteins. All currently look as though they deal only with businesses.
Material source: animal leather offcuts from fashion factories
Region: Hong Kong/ France
Fabric production: offcuts of leather are collected from factories making gardening gloves and then are processed in special recycling facilities – saving these offcuts from going to landfill. The offcuts are shredded and then bound together using natural rubber before being dyed.
Where to source: Recyc Leather is the main manufacturer I was able to find. Currently it looks as though they only deal with businesses, however I would hope this becomes an accessible alternative for home sewists who want to use animal leather but would prefer something more sustainable (and economical) than a full animal hide.
Of course, there are several more leather alternatives which I could have listed here, however further research suggested they aren’t as sustainable as they first appear – using up to 50% polyurethane in their composition, for example, or shipping their raw materials half way around the world. As I said earlier however, we’re seeing a boom in the development of sustainable textile creation – especially if the manufacturing process uses a waste material as its source, so this is an area that is likely to increase and expand both the choices and availability of new leather alternatives.
Using sustainable leather alternatives
Most of the leathers I’ve spoken about above can be used in exactly the same way as you would use genuine or faux animal leather. Generally, that means don’t pin it (use clips instead) and use a leather needle when running through a sewing machine. Some of them may have additional instructions from the manufacturer – for example, some cork fabrics don’t bend too well depending on how they’re backed (this is particularly true of reversible cork) – but don’t be afraid to use them. Go slowly and concentrate, so you make as few mistakes as possible, and you’ll be fine.
Many leather alternatives have similar qualities to leather, in that they’re water repellant, tough and durable, though some are better than others for different applications. Cactus leather, for example, is excellent in high humidities, presumably because its source material evolved in a tropical/desert region. Choose whatever you feel is the most appropriate to your useage and its availability nearest to you – Americans may want to use cactus leather, while Europeans might favour cork or apple leather, for example.
Ultimately if you decide the best option is something that is developed half the world away, consider offsetting the shipment’s CO2 – this isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s the best option available right now for dealing with the greenhouse gases generated by transporting goods across the world.