Leather is one of the most familiar clothing materials in most people’s wardrobe. It is durable, water resistant, warm, and traditional. Shoes made of materials like canvass seem very casual. Leather accessories automatically feel classier, upscale, and adult when compared to their cloth alternatives.
While all of those things are true of leather, leather has a pretty clear dark side. The most obvious negative to leather is that it can’t be made without an animal dying. There is inherent cruelty in the process of producing leather that can not be denied. While it is a responsible usage of all the parts of animals that are farmed for food, the current factory farming model is unsustainable, so the supply may eventually diminish.
In addition to the cruelty inherent in traditional leather production processes, there is also a huge environmental impact. Factory farming uses millions of gallons of water for the animals themselves, as well as to grow the feed for them. Farmed cattle account for a huge portion of our greenhouse gasses, including methane and CO2.
There is an alternative to this: vegan leather. There are a couple of different products that call themselves vegan leather. Let’s look at the process for producing some of them.
Most people are familiar with some variety of synthetic leather. “Pleather”, as it is called, has been used since the 1960s. The technology has improved since then, but it is still the same basic process. Layers of fabric are alternated with layers of plastics, which are then embossed to mimic the texture of animal hide.
Modern synthetics utilize polyvinyl chloride as the plastic compound layer. PVC provides a flexibility and a look that mimics leather, but there are some drawbacks.
While traditional leather is very heat resistant, plastic based synthetics melt at a fairly low temperature. Avoid heat sources, or it can melt the plastic layers away completely.
Another major drawback to synthetic leather is the environmental cost. One of the main motivators to choose vegan leather is for the environment, but PVC is still a fossil fuel based plastic. This means that the production process still has many pollutants, and requires oil to be drilled for and transported just like other petroleum products.
The same cork that you might find in a wine bottle or on a bulletin board can be used to make a leather substitute. Cork leather is used for things like shoes where it can hold a specific shape.
Cork leather is formed by pressing thin layers of cork into a mold on top of a fabric underlayment along with an adhesive layer. This gives a solid form for a dressier shoe, that looks a lot like polished leather.
The weakness of cork is that it isn’t flexible. Cork leather works well for a hard toed shoe, but can’t really be used for jackets, and is limited on handbag designs.
One of the newer varieties of vegan leather is ocean leather. It is made from kelp cells bonded onto cellulose fibers to mimic leather. It is thinner than traditional leather, but is a great vegan alternative.
Splitting the difference with many of the other vegan leathers is mushroom leather. Mushroom leather uses mycelium, the typically invisible underground fibers that generate mushrooms. This gives it an inherent structure, while still allowing it to be flexible.
After the mycelium sheets are produced, they are sent to a traditional tanner who treats them in much the same way leather is treated. After embossing, mushroom leather looks like the real thing, and can be used for shoes, jackets, and handbags.
In summary, there are many alternatives to leather. Each is produced in different ways, and has its own benefits and limitations.