There is no denying that leather is a classic, durable material that has been used for centuries for the production of clothing, footwear and accessories. However, in the recent years, there has been a continuous debate in the fashion industry between the use of animal and synthetic vegan leather. While one could argue that the leather industry contributes to animal cruelty, deforestation, and a negative environmental impact, vegan alternatives, on the other hand, are usually derived from non-renewable petroleum-based substances that are toxic, non-biodegradable and detrimental to the environment. Although vegan leather seems more ethical, it is far from more sustainable. Thankfully, innovative companies have come up with several solutions to this ethical dilemma by introducing new kinds of leather-like materials that are just as hardy and attractive as leather, but don’t cost the planet in the process.
Arguably the most well-known and widely used leather substitute in the fashion industry, Piñatex is an innovative leather-like material made out of pineapple leaves. This plant-based leather was invented by Dr. Carmen Hijosa, who witnessed the enormous environmental impact of the leather industry firsthand, and started wondering if there is a way to create luxury materials without harming the planet, and thankfully, there was.
Piñatex leather is produced by utilizing raw materials which are the by-product of pineapple harvesting (aka food waste) which is often discarded or even burned, making it the ideal low-impact, zero-waste option that has the full life cycle of the material in mind. But apart from being natural and sustainable, it also gives pineapple farmers an additional source of income, helping them raise their standard of living in the process. This breakthrough pineapple fibre looks similar to canvas that can be dyed, printed and treated to give different types of textures. With such treatment, Piñatex can closely resemble the look of authentic leather, without imposing animal cruelty and causing any environmental damage.
This textile is still quite new, so it may take a while before it is easily available to the public, but there are already some great vegan brands that are using this innovative material.
Bourgeois Boheme and Piñatex
Bourgeois Boheme, for example, has started using Piñatex for the production of their elegant shoes, providing consumers with a truly ethical, sustainable and cruelty-free alternative to leather footwear. Founded by an ex podiatrist and a long-time vegan, the brand has always aimed to produce unique eco-friendly and animal-free styles that are even trademarked by the likes of PETA and the Vegan Society. Even though they are still quite a small company, Bourgeois Boheme always strives to better themselves, as well as the environment, hoping to make their supply chain even more transparent than it is at the moment and minimize their carbon footprint as much as possible, without losing the durability, quality and comfort of their footwear.
Finding ethical brands always inspires me, and Bourgeois Boheme was no exception. In a world of mass-produced fashion accessories, Bourgeois Boheme has a holistically ethical approach to shoe making. Every step of manufacture is carefully thought around slow fashion, as the materials are all vegan and the factories pay living wages. Plus, the shoe-making process is entirely handmade in Portugal by local artisans. One thing I love about Bourgeois Boheme is their unwillingness to compromise in terms of design and quality: while the brand’s heart beats for ethical fashion, the manufacture is all about setting the brand apart with a quality product that makes it stand out in the industry. An absolute new favourite!
Another plant-based material, this organic textile, dubbed MuSkin, comes from a specific type of fungus that grows in subtropical forests. It is a parasitic fungus that feeds on tree trunks, causing them to rot, which means that harvesting this mushroom actually benefits the health of our environment. The mushroom can be grown to the specific size and shape required for designs, then treated and shaped into a product with a shocking suede-like touch. In addition to being incredibly sustainable, mushroom leather is water-repellent, non-toxic and surprisingly durable, making it a biodegradable and eco-friendly leather alternative.
Apart from vegan and natural leather imitations when it comes to bags and shoes, there are also some equally environmentally friendly materials that don’t necessarily resemble leather. Jute is a completely natural, organic, biodegradable, recyclable and one of the most eco-friendly fibres in the world. Jute grows organically, without the need for pesticides and harsh chemicals, which makes it completely safe for the environment, and the ideal leather substitute. For example, Carla Swimwear offers a jute bag that is sturdy, durable and sustainable, making it the perfect eco-friendly accessory.
What was long used as a water-resistant and organic material in floor tiling, cork is now widely regarded as being one of the most eco-friendly materials around. It’s easily recycled, completely natural, and best of all, using Cork Oak forests for the needs of the fashion industry actually helps prevent deforestation and desertification. With its organic texture and naturally waterproof qualities, it’s no wonder that cork has even been used by the likes of Chanel and Louboutin for the production of highly fashionable, yet sustainable bags and footwear.
While all of these innovative materials are exciting, the accessibility and the scalability of these products still presents a challenge, as they are not readily available to the average brand and cannot be utilized in a truly impactful way. Therefore, it is up to us, as consumers, to put pressure on the fashion industry by only choosing ethical and sustainable options, in the hopes that the demand will change the narrative.
By Claire Hastings