8 Innovative Sustainable Leather Alternatives on the Horizon
Time to read 8 min
Time to read 8 min
For centuries, traditional leather has been widely used in the fashion industry, despite being an unsustainable material choice. However, it has become apparent over the years that the production of conventional leather contributes to environmental degradation and poses significant health risks to both consumers and garment workers involved in the leather tanning process.
According to a study conducted by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the leather industry is responsible for roughly 20% of global industrial water pollution. The tanning process itself involves the use of various toxic chemicals, such as chromium salts, that contaminate water sources and contribute to soil pollution. The production of conventional leather also emits an alarming amount of greenhouse gases. Unsurprisingly, the leather industry ranks among the top five most environmentally damaging sectors in regards to global emissions, according to a report published by the Danish Fashion Institute.
The detrimental effects of conventional leather extend beyond the environment, exposing workers to a myriad of health hazards. The World Health Organization (WHO) highlights that exposure to hazardous chemicals used in tanning can lead to respiratory problems, skin diseases, and even certain types of cancer. These risks are particularly concerning for those who are exposed to these toxins through their work or from purchasing even the highest-quality leather goods.
Considering the alarming statistics and the long-term consequences, it's essential for us to be aware of the harms associated with traditional leather. As consumers, we have the power to drive change and to demand sustainable alternatives. By choosing ethically sourced and eco-friendly materials, such as plant-based or recycled fabrics, we can make a positive impact on both our personal health and the environment.
The fashion industry is gradually recognizing the need for more sustainable practices, with many brands and startups exploring innovative alternatives to traditional leather that offer similar qualities without the ecological drawbacks. Supporting these forward-thinking innovations can also champion a fashion revolution that embraces sustainability without compromising style.
Without further ado, let's look at 8 incredible plant-based, sustainable leather alternatives that are already making a massive impact on the fashion and interiors industries.
Treekind by Biophillica is a new plant-based leather alternative created by Mira Nameth. The material is made from lignocellulose, which is derived from non-edible agricultural feedstocks, autumn leaves, and urban plant waste. Compostable, non-toxic, and fully biobased, Treekind has a remarkably low environmental footprint. Its CO2 emissions are up to 60% lower than conventional leather, reduces landfill waste, and uses less than 0.1% of the water used in traditional leather processing. Treekind also incorporates natural pigments such as black algae pigment, and it grows in urban parks and gardens where the feedstocks are sourced. This sustainable leather alternative can be used in widespread applications across industries such as fashion, furniture, and packaging.
Banofi Leather by Atma Leather is a sustainable alternative to conventional animal-derived leather that is made from banana crop waste. It was founded by Yale University graduate Jinali Mody, who recognized the need for sustainable leather alternatives and the transformation of the leather industry in India, her home country. India is both one of the leading exporters of leather and the world's leading exporter of bananas, opening the door for innovation between the two industries. For Banofi, India's banana production is a "gold mine of resources," given that India generates 4 tons of waste for every 1 ton of fruit. The waste used in Banofi Leather comes solely from smallholder farmers, where the waste is not otherwise being utilized. Farmers are well compensated for their raw materials and incentivized to avoid crop burning agricultural practices, thereby reducing water logging in fields and mosquito breeding.
The leather material consists of 60-70% banana, 20-30% natural additives such as rubber and tree sap, and 10-20% synthetic additives like recycled PET or cotton backing. Banofi is an eco-friendly choice for industries that typically use leather and contributes to upcycling colossal amounts of banana waste. It has zero toxic wastewater and emits 90% less CO2 emissions than conventional animal-derived leather.
The leather is ideal for applications across several industries, including fashion, furniture, automotive, and packaging. As of 2023, Banofi is still in the pilot stage and looking for further investment.
Celium by Polybion uses fruit waste to create premium biomaterials like plant-based sustainable leather. Celium boasts being animal-free and using zero fossil fuels during production. Polybion was founded by Axel and Alexis Gómez-Ortigoza and Bárbara González Rolón, and their vision for Celium is to mimic nature’s synthesis of cellulose. Celium's composition consists of pure, sustainable plant cellulose extracted from unpalatable plants. Polybion uses innovative 3D printing technology that prints layers of cellulose until the desired thickness is achieved, a manufacturing method that reduces waste and the environmental pollution caused by conventional leather manufacturing. Celium's applications are diverse and extend beyond leather alternatives, from textiles to paper to structural materials.
Founded by Stephanie Downs and Dr. Xiaokun Wang, Bioleather is a plant-based alternative to conventional leather, composed of a blend of natural and synthetic ingredients including minerals, flowers, algae, coffee by-products, natural rubber, and grain by-products. Bioleather completely eliminates the need for raising livestock or requiring tanning, eliminating toxic pollutants and the high energy consumption and waste associated with leather tanning. The materials for Bioleather are sourced ethically, and the technology employed has significant reductions in carbon emissions and energy consumption, making Bioleather an environmentally-friendly alternative to conventional leather.
Bioleather is commercially available, and it is suitable for multiple uses and industries.
Bio-Vera by Modern Meadow is a novel and sustainable plant-based leather that mimics the look, feel, and aging properties of traditional leather. This technology involves developing bio-based materials with nature-inspired proteins, creating new solutions that reduce our reliance on petrochemical and animal-derived inputs. Created by Andras Forgacs, Modern Meadow’s mission is to be a leader in sustainable innovations by creating new solutions for some of the world’s most pressing challenges.
Bio-Vera contains a blend of post-consumer recycled content and Bio-Alloy, a miscible blend of plant-based protein and bio-polymer. The market application of Bio-Vera ranges from transportation to interior design. If you’re ready to test it out for yourself, you’re in luck. Bio-Vera is readily available for manufacturing at scale, perfect for brands ready to embrace a new innovative material and incorporate sustainable leather into their products.
Planet of the Grapes Grape Leather was founded by Samantha Mureau, and it’s an incredibly eco-friendly and sustainable plant-based leather alternative perfect for accessorizing your next sunny day at the winery. It’s made of 80% bio-based ingredients, including grape skins, seeds and stalks, proprietary plant matter, and 20% water-based PU. It’s no secret that France is known for its impeccable wine making. Considered a form of art as well as a “national obsession,” the raw materials are now also an innovative material used in the form of fashion, another prized form of art and obsession in France. The raw materials are sourced from organic decades-old vineyards that are carefully tendered and lovingly passed down to the next generations.
Need a handbag to go with your happy hour? New Grain by Arda Biomaterials might just be the solution for you. New Grain is a leather alternative made from beer brewery waste. Founded in London by Brett Cotten and Dr. Edward Mitchell, Arda Materials believes in creating materials that are both good for the planet and considerate of the material’s entire life cycle. Since New Grain is plastic-free, it has the ability to completely biodegrade without contributing to microplastic pollution. It also completely avoids reliance upon factory farms and chemically intensive tanneries like in traditional leather. Because of this, it yields an estimated 77-99% reduction in CO2 emission and 99.9% reduction in water usage when compared to conventional animal leather.
How is it made? It starts from the very beginning of the grain’s life. Once the grains are harvested, the raw barley and sugar are used to make the beer. Every 100L of beer leaves 20kg of brewer’s spent grain, which happens to be rich in protein and fiber. This brewer’s spent grain, or BSG, is the key to New Grain’s material composition. Ready to get your hands on it? This innovative leather alternative is still seeking partners for development, so it’s a material to look forward to in the future.
Forager is a mycelium-based leather, made from 100% pure mushroom mycelium. What exactly is mycelium? It’s the root-like structure of the fungus, consisting of a mass of thread-like branches. The founders Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre first started developing mycelium-based leather while studying together as undergraduate students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Their mission is to ‘create next-generation materials through mycelium biofabrication and to make mycelium materials accessible to everyone.’
The leather is grown in vertical farms, where it is layered in tall racks, producing large quantities in a relatively small footprint. After spending a few days in the vertical farm chamber, the material is then transformed into hides and foams. Because the production process is not limited to a particular geographic location, mycelium leather can be produced just about anywhere in the world. It is a very environmentally-friendly material, containing no toxic chemicals or plastics. Any waste generated is fully biodegradable and used as compost that feeds natural systems, improving soil quality and returning back to the earth. Though not widely mass-produced, mycelium is available in a wide array of products beyond leather, including beauty products, packaging, and vegan meat alternatives.
While the traditional leather industry has proven to be unsustainable – posing significant risks to the environment, and human health – the rising availability of alternative materials and the power of consumer choices gives us greater opportunities to reshape the fashion landscape and to promote a more sustainable future. I hope you found this list of plant-based sustainable leather alternatives inspiring, and I hope it gives you ever-increasing hope for the future of fashion and design.