The use of genuine leather in the fashion industry has been a hot topic due to its negative environmental impact and issues regarding animal cruelty. The leather industry is responsible for deforestation in many countries around the globe which drives many other issues such as biodiversity loss and climate change. In addition to that, the process of tanning leather requires a lot of energy and chemicals to create the leather that is suitable to be used and worn by consumers. Hence, with the fashion industry’s quest to become more sustainable, circular and most recently earth positive, attentions have been turned to the development and use of leather alternatives.

Additionally, with the first goal of COP26 being securing global net zero by mid-century and keeping 1.5 degrees within reach, the use of more sustainable materials made from recycled, recyclable, regenerative and responsibly sourced fibres has become key. Hence, many apparel, luxury and textile companies announced their commitments and science-based targets to use more sustainable materials. For instance, Stella McCartney announced their commitment to using 100% recycled polyester by 2025 and Sweaty Betty to using over 50% recycled or responsibly sourced natural fibres by 2025.

In addition to commitments and targets to use more sustainable materials, many companies are developing innovative materials such as MycoWorks who make mushroom-based leather from mycelium or Ananas Anam who make Pinatex, a leather alternative made from waste pineapple leaf fibre.

When looking at decarbonisation and reducing companies’ environmental impact, leather is the material that is looked at the most due to its high demand, and high negative environmental impact. The Kering group published in their annual Environmental Profit & Loss (EP&L) report 2020 that leather is the major driver of impact by a significant difference, followed by animal fibres, such as wool and cashmere. Hence, the group have identified finding leather alternatives as a great opportunity to leverage significant environmental impact reduction.

What are the different types of alternative leathers? Are bio-based, vegan, plant-based, recycled and faux leather all the same?

The answer is no, even though these terms are often used interchangeably in the fashion industry. There are several categories of leather alternatives which although fall under the same umbrella, are all slightly different. Addressing each category separately is key as it will help prevent companies from misleading consumers and falling into the trap of greenwashing by using generic and vague terms such as faux leather.

The first category is recycled leather which, as the name suggests, is made from recycled but genuine leather. Many companies opt for this type of leather alternative due to its similar feel and texture to genuine leather. For instance, BEEN LONDON, a fashion company that make accessories from waste, uses recycled leather from tannery offcuts and trimmings that are re-formed using high-pressure water jets which eliminates the need for adhesives. While this type of leather alternative has been found to have a lower environmental impact and help divert waste from going into landfills, it is still animal-based and hence does not deliver on the rising demand of vegan products from vegan customers. 

The process of creating recycled leather, image courtesy of BEEN LONDON

Another type of leather alternatives are bio-based leathers which are free from animal skin and other animal derivatives. Although bio-based leather is a term that is being increasingly used in the fashion industry (and in this article for lack of a better word), it is important to note that genuine leather is in fact bio-based itself. So, perhaps we need another term to describe this type of leather alternatives that is more literally accurate.

Bio-based leathers can be further categorised into two different groups. The first group is leather alternatives made from recycled materials such as AppleSkin™, a bio-based leather alternative made from the apple industry’s food waste. The second group is bio-based leathers made from virgin and non-recycled materials such as Desserto, a bio-based leather alternative made from Nopal cactus which is cut and processed specifically for the purpose of being made into leather. 

Karl Lagerfeld x Amber Valletta bag made from Desserto – IMAGE COURTESY OF KARL LAGERFELD / DESSERTO

Despite the different leather alternatives currently available in the market, making the decision to switch from genuine to alternative leather can be tricky as although searches for “vegan leather” nearly tripled between 2020 and 2021 – which could be an indication of an increase in demand for leather alternatives – the market value for leather goods is still growing. Additionally, the revenue in the Luxury Leather Goods segment currently amounts to £38,798m and is expected to grow annually by 4.32%. 

There are many reasons for this disparity in data and demand between alternative and genuine leather. The first reason, which is one that has been raised by many fashion companies such as Rejina PYO and Ganni, is leather alternatives’ low quality compared to genuine leather. Ganni found that leather accounted for a large percentage of their associated emissions, however, according to their creative director, Ditte Reffstrup, leather alternatives are expensive and low quality. Despite reaching this conclusion, though, Ganni announced a commitment to eliminate the use of genuine leather in October 2021 and have set themselves a two-year deadline to find an alternative. However, it is important to note that not all fashion companies find the quality of leather alternatives to be an issue. For instance, Sandra Sandor, the creative director of Nanushka favours leather alternatives and says: “the vegan leather we use is buttery soft and it feels like leather, sometimes people mistake it for real leather, so it’s definitely not compromising on quality”. The vegan leather they use is made from polyester and polyurethane which brings me to my next point about issues regarding leather alternatives. 

Almost all leather alternatives have a degree of plastic in them. For instance, Piñatex® which has been used by many brands such as Nike and H&M is made of 80% waste pineapple leaf fibre and 20% PLA, a thermoplastic polyester. Therefore, although their production is believed to have up to 33% less environmental impact, the issues regarding microplastic pollution and plastic waste at the end of their life cycle still remain. Hence, some sustainable fashion brands such as Anya Hindmarch opt for ethically sourced real leather that is tanned and processed using more sustainable techniques. 

Jessica Kruger, the founder of Luxtra, a fashion company that uses a range of bio-based materials such as Piñatex® and AppleSkin™, defends the use of these materials by saying “when it comes to bio-based materials, I always start by saying that there’s no “perfect” material – yet. The best aspects, in my opinion, are the fact that a) we remove animals from the supply chain (hopefully we’ll look back in a few years and realise how barbaric animal agriculture is!) and b) that a lot of so-called waste materials can be “upcycled” to make these new materials, thus reducing our reliance on virgin resources”. She does, though, address the aforementioned drawbacks of bio-based leather alternatives by adding “the aspects that still need more work include reducing the high cost of these nascent materials, and finding alternatives to PU (polyurethane – essentially a plastic), which is still commonly used in many of these materials”.

So, can leather alternatives replace genuine leather?

The answer is maybe. But in my opinion, they still have a long way to go. A lot more research and development is required to address the key issues regarding their quality, price and composition for all fashion companies to completely ditch genuine leather. However, as I mentioned earlier, with the targets and commitments set by fashion companies to use more sustainable materials, companies that develop alternative materials have become an attractive investment option – something that will help scale up production, and research and development. For instance, on 14th January 2022, MycoWorks announced that they have raised $125 million in a Series C funding round which they will use to launch their first full-scale Fine Mycelium™ production plant.

Lastly, a key point that I must add here to challenge everything mentioned above is: should leather alternatives replace genuine leather, taking account of all the additional considerations and complications? Many critics of leather alternatives believe that products made from genuine leather should be available in the market for those who still wish to consume it. Their argument is similar to the common refrain that you cannot force people to take real meat and other animal-based products out of their diet, and similarly you cannot just take genuine leather out of their wardrobe. However, I believe that if the transition from using genuine leather to leather alternatives becomes smoother, meaning that consumers do not have to compromise on quality, durability and price by choosing leather alternatives, it will become much easier to encourage those consumers to purchase leather alternatives as opposed to genuine leather.