Would you ever wear “grape leather” shoes? Or “cactus leather” gloves? How about a “kombucha leather” jacket and a “mushroom leather” bag?
With the trend towards more sustainable fashion, the burgeoning world of animal-free “leather alternatives” is becoming more mainstream. This week saw the launch of Dune founder Daniel Rubin’s new sustainable trainer brand Lerins, featuring £130 shoes made with a leather-like material created from grape skins left over from winemaking.
The so-called “vegetable leather” promises great benefits for the planet. Lerins not only recycles an existing waste stream (as is also the case with “leathers” made from apples, bananas and pineapples), but it also disconnects itself from the beef industry and in doing so , avoids the problems of greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and animal welfare.
Lerins joins a growing number of brands working with plant-based alternatives to leather, including Allbirds, Hermès, Reformation and Stella McCartney.
And it’s not just the “vegetable leather” that is attracting attention. This week, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kering, parent company of fashion brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, invested “significant” sums in Californian lab leather startup VitroLabs. The process of making leather in the laboratory involves growing stem cells to replicate animal skins. The leather should therefore be as strong and durable as conventional leather.
“We are at a turning point,” says American journalist and author Dana Thomas. “When I wrote Fashionopolis [in 2019, covering the future of sustainable fashion]it was in the testing phase, now it’s being commercially rolled out – it’s exciting to see this happen.
In August, Stella McCartney launches grape leather shoes and handbags, and later this year a mushroom leather bag, made from mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms. Allbirds’ first vegetable-based leather shoes, made with vegetable oil and natural rubber, are expected “in due course.”
Nicole Rawling, CEO of the California-based charity Material Innovation Initiative, which brings together brands, scientists and investors to accelerate this next generation of animal-free materials, said last year that $980 million in funding had been raised. for fabrics that replace animal-based fabrics. materials (including silk and wool).
However, it is proving difficult for plant-based leather alternatives to compete with the durability of bovine leather, which is problematic if it affects the lifespan of a product. Take plant-based shoes, says Dr Laetitia Forst, postdoctoral researcher in sustainable fashion at the University of the Arts London. “Even though their initial impact is lower, if you have to replace them every year instead of every 10 years, their overall impact will be much higher.”
The solution, so far, has been – controversially – Plastic. Many of these leather alternatives use a polyurethane (PU) coating to improve durability. (McCartney and Lerins both work with biomaterials company Vegea, which uses water-based polyurethane, and claims it’s “the most environmentally friendly polyurethane available”; Allbirds claims its ” vegetable-tanned leather” is 100% plastic-free.)
“If you combine natural and synthetic materials, there will be problems at the end of life stage,” says Philippa Grogan of Eco-Age. “Plastics compromise the biodegradability of a product.”
There’s no doubt that the plant-based leather industry wants to solve this problem: “No one is happy to have petrochemicals in their products,” says Rawling. She is optimistic that competition will force companies to develop more sustainable solutions.