No Animals Harmed: Sustainable Alternatives to Animal Leather

No Animals Harmed: Sustainable Alternatives to Animal Leather

By Leah Sheline

Though the use of animal hides dates to prehistory, now traditional leather manufacturers have to compete with more eco-friendly and humane alternative materials. The manufacturing of animal-derived leather creates a large carbon footprint based on the substantial amount of natural resources required to raise livestock. Now, they are facing off against a growing trend against meat consumption and animal products, in part due to the arguably inhumane practices of factory farming. Additionally, leather fabrication uses toxic chemicals which can directly harm people through skin-to-fabric contact and can also be indirectly harmful to people and the environment. Due to these trends, leather is now scarcer and, therefore, more expensive for manufacturers, designers, and consumers.

Previous solutions like plastic-based textiles (e.g., pleather, which is made from polyurethane) and other synthetic textiles have been used as alternatives to leather. However, these animal leather alternatives involve manufacturing processes which are not entirely non-toxic or eco-friendly. They also did not offer the same material properties as leather, and are now largely seen as ‘cheap,’ lesser-quality alternatives.

The ideal faux-leather would be at least as durable, attractive, and versatile as animal leather, but would utilize sustainable bio-sources and carbon-negative or carbon-neutral production techniques. While many bio-alternatives to traditional tanned animal hides have been developed, they are yet to be produced on a commercial scale. One example is a type of faux leather made from the cellulose fibers left over from kombucha tea. But, that is just one example; these materials are also created from pineapple foliage, mushrooms, kelp seaweed, tree bark, and even lab cultures of animals’ collagen cells, which are what comprise real animal skins. Some of these are discussed in greater detail below.

Commercial Production of Non-Synthetic Alternatives to Animal Hide Leather

Piñatex™ is a company that produces leather alternatives from pineapple leaves, which are the remainder of the plant that is discarded as organic waste by pineapple farmers. During a process called decortication, the fibers that become faux leather are extracted. The byproduct of this process can be used as a fertilizer or converted into biogas through fermentation, while the non-woven pre-leather is then finished into a sewable leather-like textile in Spain.

MycoWorks grows a leather-like material from mushrooms. Mycelium, the vegetative part of fungi consisting of a network of fine filaments, or hyphae, is used to produce a highly versatile and durable leather alternative. Mycelium can easily thrive on agricultural waste, such as sawdust or nut shells. MycoWorks primarily uses the fungal species Ganoderma lucidum, a type of reishi mushroom. It is the safest fungus to use for this purpose, and it is the mushroom most commonly used as food. As the mycelium network grows, natural polymers are formed to create a durable sheet similar to leather. MycoWorks can control many aspects of the growing conditions to create a faux leather of any shape, thickness, or size. The mycelium can also be manipulated with organic compounds to result in various textures. The material is then baked to kill the fungal organisms and spores so that new fungal growth won’t occur. The leather alternative company is already catering to designers, customizing the material’s characteristics for various consumer products.

The Italian corporation, Grado Zero Espace™ developed another type of mushroom-based faux leather called MuSkin which is commercially available via Life Materials’ online shop. MuSkin is produced from the caps of mushrooms of the species of fungus called Phellinus ellipsoideus, a specimen of which happens to be the largest fungal fruit body ever recorded. These fungi naturally grow in subtropical forests, parasitically feeding on trees. Like MycoWorks’ mycelium leather, MuSkin is naturally water-repellent, but less versatile in terms of texture (MuSkin has a soft suede-like texture). The non-toxic production techniques used by MycoWorks and MuSkin to make mushroom leather make the material ideal for goods such as clothing, jewelry, or upholstery that may frequently come in direct contact with the consumer’s skin. It is generally more breathable than animal leather and limits the proliferation of bacteria. Mushroom leather is an eco-friendly, sustainable, and cost-competitive choice, as it takes just a fraction of the time and resources to produce compared to traditional leather made from animal hides.

SeaCell® is one brand of “ocean leather,” developed by Nanonic Inc. To make it, kelp seaweed is mixed with cellulose to produce a material that looks and feels like leather. Since kelp is such an abundant and sustainable resource, ocean leather is an ecologically sound choice, and may even offer health benefits due to the vitamin E and other nutrients found in kelp that can be absorbed by the wearer’s skin.

Cork leather is made from the bark of cork oak trees. Numerous manufacturers and suppliers of this material are currently in business. The production of cork leather is sustainable since harvesting slices of a cork oak tree does not require the tree to be cut down. In fact, the bark grows back within a few years, and when the bark slices are harvested roughly every nine years, this process actually prolongs the life of the tree.

Modern Meadow, Inc. has developed perhaps the most exciting innovation in animal-free leather manufacturing: lab-grown leather. A process called biofabrication has been developed by the corporation in which living cells are used and engineered to produce collagen. The sheets of collagen, the same protein found in the skin of animals, are then finished utilizing a simplified process of tanning, transforming the raw synthetic skin into leather that uses fewer chemicals than traditional tanning. The material can be fine-tuned in terms of shape, size, thickness, color, and even pattern. Because the size and shape are determined by design, none of the leather goes to waste.

Benefits of Bio-Leathers

Derived from abundantly available, sustainable sources of raw material, bio-leathers undeniably beat traditional leather production methods in terms of sustainability. Also, with the exception of lab-grown leather, they involve non-toxic processes and are biodegradable when composted. At the same time, they provide the durability consumers desire and expect from leather garments, accessories, home furnishings, and automobile upholstery. Additionally, all of these faux leather materials are more versatile than traditional leather, as the shape and size of the usable material are not constrained by an animal’s shape and size, nor by the idiosyncrasies and flaws found in each individual animal’s skin. Production of the produce-based leather alternatives are very cost-competitive. As lab-grown leather comprises more of the market space for leather goods, the cost of production is expected to drop steeply. In addition, since lab-grown leather is identical yet superior to animal leather, it may well rise to the top of the market for alternatives to traditionally manufactured, tanned animal hide leather.

These newer leather alternatives are ecologically sound, sustainable, and humane, and as commercialization scales up even further, driving costs down even more, traditional animal hide leather may one day become a thing of the past.

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