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What are the main vegan alternatives to leather, how do they perform and what is their environmental profile like? INGE FLOWERS, managing director of Authenticae, addresses these and other issues in this practical advice piece for fashion executives.

LONDON – Portugal recently banned use of the term ‘vegan leather’ and other leather prefixes in marketing on the basis that they are technically incorrect and misleading to consumers. This is part of a growing backlash against the leather-alternative market and a recognition in some quarters that leather alternatives might not be the panacea for fashion that some would have us believe.

I have some sympathy for fashion’s executives here. On the one hand, they face pressure from the likes of PETA to shift away from leather due to its links with the meat industry (not to mention claims of pollution in leather supply chains during the leather tanning process). Yet as they move to leather alternatives, they risk a backlash from those who claim these alternatives are almost always held together by plastic.

As somebody with a background in sustainability, recycling, and chemistry, with a very large dose of unprecedented (geeky) knowledge about leather and biomaterials, my aim with this article is to offer a clear-eyed, practical assessment of the leather alternatives currently on the marketplace.

I’ve seen most of these alternatives, both casually and in the lab. All have different properties, strengths and weaknesses. An overriding observation is there is a trade-off between performance and environmental credentials. Put simply, it’s an uncomfortable truth that leather alternatives with the most plastic have best performance characteristics.

To begin with, then, here’s some science-made-simple: if a material has ‘polyurethane’ or ‘polypropylene’ in it, it’s plastic. If it’s vegan, then it’s not leather.

What is “vegan leather”?

The original vegan leather’ was made of 100 per cent plastic. We also call it pleather or pu-leather. This material is still around and used all the time, but it’s not the only material calling itself vegan leather. Technology has moved on since the ‘70s and a range of new materials have been created. Sometimes people have made something that doesn’t even pretend to look like leather, but they still work to tag the leather label onto it, and that creates more confusion.

Fortunately, there are some really clever scientists out there who have looked at the materials to see what they really are, and how they perform. Let’s get familiar with some of these materials.

People have created vegan materials made from plastic, mushrooms, paper, fruit, leaves, and often mixed these in with plastics. From what I’ve seen so far, they mostly fit into three groups:

∙ Things that are genuinely natural, with no added plastics

∙ Things that are mostly plastics with some plant bits added in to justify the label

∙ Things halfway between the two.

In terms of materials that are genuinely natural, Muskin and Kombucha fit into this category. Neither of them feel anything like leather though. Muskin is made up of mushrooms – it’s way more technical than that, but let’s leave it there. It feels like a combination of sponge-meets-moss[1]meets-velvet; fluffy and soft. To make it useable, though, it’s tanned (in a leather tannery), and very often the spongey material is compressed to make it more of a solid material. It’s definitely unusual, though I wouldn’t trust it to be strong enough as a bag, or shoe, or coat. The main use I’ve seen of Muskin, is the Sylvania handbag by Hermes, and this looks like a modification – or possibly an upgrade – of the Muskin technology.

Kombucha is made from tea, bacteria, and yeast (again, way more complicated than that, but let’s keep it simple). It’s also known as SCOBY, and it’s apparently something that anyone can have a go at making. The one I’ve seen feels like a very thick version of cling-film. It’s got a tacky-rubbery feel to it, and just like cling film, I don’t feel it’s strong enough to be useful as a bag. However, Google reassures me that it’s been used to make clothes, and Sacha Laurin (the person behind Kombucha Couture) says that even if they’re kept bone dry, anything made from Kombucha can’t be expected to last longer than six months. Either way, it’s not something I’m adventurous enough to try!

While neither of these materials will have the strength and longevity of genuine leather, if you want highly unusual talking pieces with minimal plastics or nasties, then anything made from Muskin or Kombucha will definitely create conversation.

Materials that are pretending

Okay, so how to explain this without the science? These are a little like modernised versions of pleather: made up of a fabric (for strength), with some layers of plastic over it. Desserto, Appleskin, Vegea and Teak-Leaf all fit into this category in one way or another. They have a fabric base, with plastic over the top that has plant materials embedded in it. Teak-Leaf is slightly different: it’s made up of a backing fabric, with leaves laminated onto them and a thin coating over the top of the leaves.

I completely understand why and how these materials came to be made like this. Everyone wants a “vegan leather” – something that performs and looks like leather, but isn’t made of animal materials. But plant materials aren’t as strong as genuine leather. They tear more easily, so giving them a fabric backing adds strength. The plant materials also tend to get brittle when they dry out, so adding plastic helps them bend. To get something that’s strong and flexible enough to be useful, you often end up with something that has more plastic than you might like. It’s a system that’s working though, as this is where so many of the brands we know and love are celebrating their use of vegan materials.

Desserto has cactus material in it and is used to make a range of shoes and accessories by brands that include H&M, Fossil, Karl Lagerfeld, and their automotive material (Desserttex) has even been part of a BMW collaboration.

AppleSkin contains apple material, and it’s been used to make shoes and bags from Nuxtra London, nuuwaï, Veerah, Samara and Komrads.

Vegea is also known as grape-leather, or vine-leather, and contains waste from vineries, and has been used in collections by Calvin Klein, H&M, Redemption, and Le Coq Sportif. It was even included in Bentley’s EXP 100 GT. Teak Leaf is found in a huge range of items, ranging from Jungley and Beleaf all the way through to Etsy, Not On The High Street, and Amazon sellers!

Things in-between

Pinatex and SnapPap are two materials that fit into this category. They’re actually ‘non-woven’ materials, which means they’re made more like felt fabric or maybe home-made paper than a traditional fabric with a weave. They’re then given a light coating to help protect the surface, but in general they appear to have been minimally treated.

In reality, SnapPap looks and feels like cardboard to me. I’m not sure how it has a ‘leather-like feel’, but then perhaps I’m too old fashioned. It is supposed to be washable, so it has that advantage over cardboard. Either way, this is a craft material that is available through most well-known online retailers, and there are some really charming items made from it on Etsy.

Pinatex probably looks the most like leather, but it’s not a leather that any tannery would be proud of. In the leather industry there’s a term called ‘looseness’, which is when the top of the leather looks wrinkly like old skin. Genuine leather that has too much looseness is considered poorly made, and Pinatex reminds me of leather with a serious looseness issue. However, it’s incredibly popular, with brands like Hugo Boss, Laura Strambi, Votch, and Drew Veloric including them in their collections for anything from shoes to accessories to upholstery.

The odd one

There’s always an exception to the rules, and one of the materials that doesn’t fit into one of the three groups nicely is the belts by Noani. Noani is a shortening of ‘no animal’ and their products are supposed to be fully vegan and PETA approved. However, when scientists looked at their belt in more detail, they found that it is actually a … leather sandwich! The top layer is a polyester (plastic), and the bottom is a fabric. The surprise comes in the filling: it’s a leather-board. Yes, a PETA approved ‘vegan leather’ belt contains leather fibres that come from genuine leather that comes from animals.

The best of the lot?

Arguably, the most progressive development of all in the leather alternative market is Mirum by Natural Fiber Welding. Mirum is made with plants and minerals, from a combination of virgin natural materials and upcycled agricultural side-streams. Mirum is produced by Natural Fiber Welding, a US-business which recently received US$85m funding to scale the development of its materials. I’ve never worked with Mirum in the lab but this piece on the company’s website offers a very good summary of the science behind it: How MIRUM® is made (naturalfiberwelding.com)

How good are they for the environment?

Okay, now we know a little more about what the materials are, and what goes into them, what about their environmental credentials. I’m going to go against the trend here and say that plastic materials are worse for the environment than natural, renewable materials like silk, wool and leather. There is a lot of carbon footprint data that claims that plastics like polyurethane and polypropylene are more sustainable, and to me that’s because they’re not measuring what happens when you throw them away. Plastic-based fabrics don’t ‘use’ many resources while they’re “growing” the way natural materials do. However, natural materials don’t make micro-plastics, and this isn’t captured in lifecycle analysis data. Yet!

The synthetic clothes, or materials that have plastics in them can’t be recycled. In my world, recycling includes the usual recycling that we’re used to, as well as composting so that the nutrients go back into nature. Plastics can’t be composted, and neither can they be recycled in traditional way because they’re now a ‘composite’ – a mish-mash of different types of material that can’t be separated. We can recycle milk bottles because they’re all made of the same type of plastic and once they’re washed, there’s nothing but that single type of plastic in them. With many of these vegan materials, we have a textile, several types of plastics in layers, and then plant material embedded within them. You can’t separate all that out again. That means Desserto, Pinatex, Appleskin, Noani, Teak, and Vegea can’t be recycled or composted. At the end of their life, after they’ve been through the re-use option a time or two, the only options left for them are landfill or incineration. This leaves Muskin, Kombucha, SnapPap as the only compostable or possibly recyclable materials.

We don’t know for certain just how compostable they actually are (yet) but as best we know they don’t have plastics or restricted chemicals in them. Having said all that, these are the materials that aren’t being used by the big brands.

At the end of the day, life isn’t simple, and there are precious few black and white options available to us. Each material has advantages and disadvantages, just as each of us has our own unique strengths and weaknesses. That doesn’t make any of them good or bad – it just means that you need to make your choices based on what’s important to you. Hopefully you now have a little bit more information so that you can pick the material that resonates best for you and your values.

About the author Inge Flowers is managing director of Authenticae, experts in leather and biomaterials. The company’s laboratory services can help you to test how biodegradable your leather and alternative materials are, how well they compost, and the impact on the ecosystem. www.authenticae.co.uk

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