Better Leather: Plant-Based, Non-Toxic Faux

Previously, we wrote about three vegan, cruelty-free leather alternatives:

Scoby leather is made from the material that forms on the surface of a kombucha culture, dried and formed into fabric. It is currently in the experimental phase because it is not water resistant and dissolves when exposed to moisture.

Muskin, as the name implies, is made from mushroom skins and provides an exciting alternative to leather because it is soft (feels like suede), durable, breathable and anti-bacterial! It is also tanned using an all-natural, non-chemical process.

Piñatex is made from the pineapple leaves, the byproduct of agricultural pineapple farming, and requires no extra water, pesticides or fertilizers.

We have also written about upcycled leather and PVC, which similarly provide cruelty-free leather alternatives by diverting waste away from landfills. Tire inner tubes, furniture, and automobile and aircraft interiors provide materials for durable, stylish recycled products that look cool and tell a story.

Today we are revisiting the topic of leather alternatives to explore some more exciting new (and old) plant-based leather substitutes.

  • Kelp "leather" hat by Julia Lohmann's Department of Seaweed.

Leather raises animal rights questions, but its petrolium-derived plastic alternatives leave a major footprint on the environment. So, if you don’t want to harm animals, or use polluting, chemically-derived synthetics, what other alternatives are out there?

It turns out that a lot of designers and product developers around the world have taken notice of the lack of ethical leather substitutes, and they have been developing and discovering new options. From flax to tree bark to sewable stone (!!!), here are a bunch more vegan leather substitutes.

Cork

Cork leather is gaining popularity as one of the most widely known leather substitutes. Thanks to the unique tree that produces it, it has a distinctive look and texture. Grown mostly in the Mediterranean, the method of harvesting cork bark without killing the tree has been practiced for generations. The material is naturally water-resistant and hypoallergenic.

Barkcloth

Amazingly, barkcloth is one of the oldest known textiles (even older than weaving) according to UNESCO. It is made by the people of Uganda, barkcloth is harvested from Mutaba trees, without killing the tree, and then beaten into a thin sheet. Nigerian-German fashion designer Bobby Kolade (who grew up in Uganda) has teamed up with the Ugandan-German Barongo-Heintz family who started the BarkTex company, to bring barkcloth to the runway. Supporting the craftspeople who make barkcloth can be beneficial for Ugandan farmers and their families, and BarkTex is succeeding in providing secure incomes, not just in Uganda but in Brazil and Honduras as well. Both cork and barkcloth have seen a decline in demand, hurting the local economies, so supporting these two types of vegan leather is a winning situation all around.

Flax or Cotton Based Leather Substitute

Developers at the University of Delaware have created a leather alternative made from flax or cotton treated with vegetable oils. The product is more breathable than plasticized imitation leathers, such as PVC.

Natural Rubber (aka Vegetable Latex)

Confusingly, sometimes PVC can be labelled as rubber or latex, or even “natural latex,” so it’s essential to ensure that the product in fact comes from the natural rubber tree. Long prized in the fetish community for its second-skin feel, rubber can be worked into clothing using glue instead of thread to join hems. Natural rubber is a biodegradable plant product, but its sustainability may suffer due to high international demand. The SNR-i (Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative) works with a network of 36 countries and 120 producers and consumers to promote best practices for sustainably produced rubber.

Paper

Impractical? Maybe, but paper has been seen on the runway, woven in origami-like ways, to create beautiful haute couture clutches and handbags. Just don’t get caught out in the rain!

Seaweed

The experimental brainchild of Julia Lohmann, design professor at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg, the Department of Seaweed uses dried kelp to imitate a variety of common materials, including paper, plastic and leather. Lohmann uses laser cutting and the natural translucency of kelp to create her fine art constructs.

Sewable Slate

My favourite find so far is sewable slate. The world’s thinnest stone is applied to a backing of fleece, which gives it flexibility and means it can be sewn together! The material has a naturally patterned texture which varies — no two pieces are alike. Over time slate becomes naturally worn giving the impression of aged leather. Sewable slate is marketed by the Italian family-run Villani Leonello company, which also supplies cork leather and other natural materials including cotton, linen and jute.

At this point you’re probably wondering where can you purchase vegan leather alternatives, and luckily, Toronto’s The Imperative has got you covered. The only store of its kind in Canada, The Imperative supplies only 100% vegan products, including clothes, shoes and handbags. One wander of the store and I was amazed at how some of their products were nearly indistinguishable from animal leather. Store manager Lia was kind enough to answer a few of my questions. The products at The Imperative, she told me, don’t always list their contents due to trade secrets, and many are made of ‘vegan microfibres’ or ‘futurefibres.’ Uh oh! Synthetic microfibres from petrolium derivatives have received damning reviews as a major pollutant of our waterways! (We’ve written about that too, if you’re interested in further reading.) Some PVC-based microfibres are even being accused of ‘greenwashing’!

But don’t worry, The Imperative also carries lots of cork leather and products from recycled materials. Lia suggests brand names Nicora and Vaute, which both use recycled and/or organic materials. So stop by The Imperative at 1332 Queen St. W., and shop around, but remember to ask for plant-based products that aren’t sourced from petrolium!

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What is really amazing is how many plant-based eco-friendly leathers are actually economically viable and fair-trade. Piñatex and Muskin are 100% vegetable, and Piñatex is even made from existing agricultural waste, aiding farmers in the Phillipines. Cork and barkcloth help local communities sustain a traditional way of life, rubber has sustainability initiatives in place, and sewable slate is supplied by a small family-run business. So if you’re a leather lover and want to try the really sustainable option, consider sharing this article and telling your friends!

Of course, if you don’t want to put your money towards animal leather and the meat industry, there is always the option of buying from a vintage or secondhand store.