If you like the look of leather but also want a more sustainable and ethical fashion industry, you really don't have many options. While real leather obviously doesn't fit an ethical lifestyle, many vegetarian and vegan leather alternatives are made from plastic, adding to the already enormous amount of waste that fills our oceans. Although innovation has been slow, more sustainable options are being developed around the world to make available to consumers. What do these new leather alternatives have in common? They are all made from plants.
Pleather is a portmanteau for "faux leather," while vegan or vegetarian leather suggests that the fabric is made more sustainably and ethically – but that's not always the case. The environmentally conscious luxury brand Stella McCartney, for example, uses vegetarian leather and "Alter-Nappa" instead of materials of animal origin. The brand explains that the vegetarian leather and aged nappa are made from recycled polyester and in some cases mixed with polyurethane. Recycled polyester is a type of recycled plastic, and while it is certainly better than using new polyester, the plastics and microplastics made from recycled polyester are still environmentally harmful.
We admire Stella McCartney's transparency and dedication to using vegetarian leather, but we're still keen to find a non-plastic leather alternative. While a fully vegetable leather is not yet on the market, we've found some brands that develop eco-leather from a mixture of plants – cactus (Desserto), pineapple (Piñatex), mushroom (Mylo) or apple (Frumat), to name a few – and recycled materials.
"I have created a solution that offers a real alternative for these industries – without harming the environment through the use of animal skin or toxic plastics," says Desserto.
Piñatex is a vegetable-based leather made from pineapple leaves, bioplastics and petroleum resin, which was developed in the 1990s by Dr. Carmen Hijosa and launched in 2015. It was inspired by traditional Barong Tagalog clothing, which is a national dress of the Philippines, often made from piña (a Filipino silky fiber made from pineapple leaves). Although Piñatex has a very small ecological footprint, it is currently not biodegradable as it is mixed with a petroleum-based resin and bioplastic.
Mylo is another vegetable leather made from mushrooms that we really loved. It consists of laboratory-grown mycelium, the subterranean, interconnected structure of fungi. The textile, developed by parent company Bolt Threads, worked with Stella McCartney to create a prototype of the brand's Falabella bag with Mylo in 2018, which was shown in the Fashioned from Nature exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. After Bolt Threads launched the first Mylo-developed driver tote bag for early funders in 2018, it has become silent as to when Mylo will be available to consumers. The brand is currently executing orders as of December 2019 and is "doing a full lifecycle analysis of Mylo prior to large-scale commercial rollout"
Making Piñatex from petroleum resin and Mylo at the development stage doesn't help us much in finding a truly sustainable alternative to leather – until we come across Desserto. The Mexican vegan leather made from easy-to-make cacti could be exactly what the fashion industry is looking for. We spoke to the creators Marte and Adrian who walked us through the making of Desserto and plans for availability for everyday shoppers like us.
"Desserto was selected as second runner-up for the LVMH Innovation Award and will work with brands in the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy group."
"We both worked with textiles and animal leather, so we were aware of the footprint the materials are making on the environment and we wanted to change that," says Desserto. "I have developed a solution that offers a real alternative for these industries – without harming the environment through the use of animal skin or toxic plastics."
Marte and Adrian discovered that the barbarian prickly pear (opuntia ficus-indica) grows in abundance in many parts of Mexico, and when they examined the potential impact of the harvest on land, biodiversity, and the food industry, they found that it is a perfect candidate for Leatherette.
The cactus is grown in a completely organic way with no irrigation systems, pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers and takes around six to eight months to mature. Once it's ready for harvest, the ripe leaves are selected, sun-dried and mixed with other additives to create a bio-resin that is combined with packaging made from recycled fabric (recycled cotton or recycled polyester) – and the end result is Desserto. Unlike other vegetable leathers, the brand also offers a product for cactus resin only, but many buyers require the textile backing.
Desserto is already working with brands in the apparel and automotive industries to make cactus leather products and will eventually venture into the finished goods market. Since its launch in 2019, the brand has won the German Green Product Award, the sustainable Monte-Carlo Fashion Week award, the Australian Good Design Award 2020, and was selected as the runner-up for the LVMH Innovation Award, which means that Desserto will soon work with brands in the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy group. The Desserto fabric is available not only for major brands but also for everyday use. It offers six different colors to small businesses, students, and individuals with no minimum order requirement.
If you are interested in the latest offers from Desserto and other vegan plant-based leathers, you will find new product launches and updates in this section.
Image source: Desserto