Updated: Feb 5
Currently, there are many products that use leather as its core material but it is also found within many more. This includes belts, shoes, wallets, bag sand jackets, just to name a few, so as I am sure you are aware there is a lot of leather out there. This largely comes down to the ‘high end’ ‘quality’ look and feel the majority of people believe it achieves. However, for ethical and environmental reasons leather is certainly not good at all. A common misconception with leather is the belief that leather is a by-product of the meat industry but this is simply not true. Most leathers come from animals that are killed primarily for their skin and not as a by-product, even as a by-product it is still not ethical. Additionally to this, the process to tanning leather uses a lot of toxic chemicals, which has further impacts on the environment. This is why I have been looking for an eco-friendly, ethical alternative that is sustainable, as a replacement for leather. To do this I have looked at the ‘Cradle-to-cradle’ approach, which looks at the life cycle of the product from its source, through its manufacture to its end of life and if this can be recycled, renew or reused in some way. For these reasons I have omitted faux leather, which is often made from PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) a plastic made to look like leather, as its production is a carbon-intensive process and isn’t biodegradable. Anyway, here are 12 sustainable, cruelty free alternatives to leather:
This is probably my favourite alternative and possibly the fastest growing in popularity in recent years. It is a great sustainable material made from the bark of a cork oak tree. The bark is harvested in a way that does not affect the tree allowing the bark to regrow, making it sustainable. There are many different ways the cork is pressed to form the material, which give slightly different looks with both a light and dark finish. To me it gives an earthy elegant look, which is a lot better than leather. Cork is naturally weatherproof, durable and recyclable at the end of its life, further making it a great choice. I have seen it made into wallets, briefcases, belts, bags and even umbrellas. This natural material is probably one of the most eco-friendly materials on this list making it my first choice.
Tree Bark Leather:
This is much like cork and comes from fast growing, sustainable timber and renewable forests or woods. This creates a durable and strong wood leather material, which is often created into a fabric like material called bark cloth or bark fleece. This may not always be waterproof but this feature can be achieved with non-toxic chemical on some items. If you want a more flexible material this may be a great option. I have seen this been made into jackets, coats and other clothing items.
This is another one that has increased in popularity and although initially surprising it can achieve strength to that of leather. Additionally, as most of you know paper can be recyclable and made from recycled material, well this is no different for the paper products that can replace leather. The leather like paper itself often uses canvas to strengthen the material and natural oils to soften it and make it flexible. This gives it, its unique look and as it is paper a variety of colours, patterns and designs can be applied to it. I have seen bags, purses and wallets all use this material. The most well-known is the Mighty Wallet, which is known for its extreme durability and strength.
Another great choice is rubber, which is more of an acute style but provides a matt leathery look. As this is commonly from recycled material, it is often coloured black, which is fine if you like that but you also may not. It has a unique texture that some people don’t like the feel of too but again some might. However, some believe it has a similar texture and density of leather and is a great alternative for bags, belts and accessories. Additionally, the core rubber material often comes from old inner tubes and other recycled rubber that is upcycled.
Recycled tyres – I thought I would mention this as a sub section due to the prominence it has in fashion. I am sure you must have seen belts, guitar straps and jewellery accessories made out of old bike tires, which again provide a unique look with a recycled material.
Piñatex is a very unique material made from pineapple plant leaves. This is a 100% eco-friendly product and uses an often unused by-product of the pineapple farming industry. This creates a secondary source of income for the farmers and is sustainable. The material looks like worn leather, is watertight and does not need any toxic chemicals in its processing. I have seen this mainly be used for shoes and bags but can be made into dressed, skirts and other items. This is a great option as it is both ethical and sustainable.
This one may be a bit more tricky and you should do some research, as to where you are getting the product from. However, there are companies that provide waxed cotton that is both organic and sustainable. Cotton on its own is not waterproof and that is why it is waxed. This creates a material that is waterproof and as cotton and wax are easier to clean than leather the process in its formation is easier to wash, which reduces the amounts of potentially harmful cleaning chemicals. As this is fabric based it is much more pliable than leather and others on this list, allowing it to be applied in more products. Some well-known brands make some high-end products with this unique texture and look. I have seen this primarily used for jackets, hats and bags.
What do you mean a cloth made from stone? That’s impossible right? Well, Coolstone ‘leather is made from an extremely thin sewable layer of slate stone onto a fleece material. This again is very unique and provides a well-worn leathery look that feels like paper and stone. As it gets older the distressed look increases, further improving the well-worn look. Due to it being made from slate stone It always comes in a matte black/grey finish, which gets softer with age. This is a new emerging material that needs more development but is a great looking alternative to leather.
This one is fascinating but unfortunately I haven’t seen many companies use it. It is a natural material that comes from the ocean, specifically from leather kelp (large brown tough seaweed). To be sustainable it involves growing this plant in a farmed section of the ocean but there is already an abundance of it that exists and as above it is still in its early stages of development. However, the kelp does not use pesticide lessening its environmental impact. Once collected it is often dyed to be a more appeasing colour but this can be done with natural, eco-friendly dyes.
This is an odd one and some people may not like the idea of it but I believe it is a great alternative. You may have guessed from the name but this comes from mushrooms. To be precise it used the inedible mushroom specifically Phellinus Elliposideus cap that grows on tree trunks. Once harvested the mushroom cap go through a similar process of leathering but instead of using toxic chemicals, natural eco-friendly alternative can be used. In this process the material can also be made water-repellent. This finished material creates an earthy looking products that looks similar to suede but is much softer. I have seen this used for bags, hats and purses but will hopefully see a lot more of it in the not too distant future.
The Hana Plant (Agave Plant):
This again is a lesser-known alternative but still makes it way on the list. The reason for it being on the list is because it’s simplistic, elegant minimalistic look that I love. This uses the fibres from the thick leaves of the Hana Plant that can be grown sustainably. They are woven together to produce a thick fabric. I have seen seller’s state this is good for the local communities where it is grown and is Peta approved, further increasing it eco-friendliness. However, if you pick an item up with it, try to ensure that is uses natural, certified dyes on the product.
This is another interesting one and the one that I believe connects the most with nature (visually), so if you are like that, I would recommend this one. This uses natural raw teak leaves that are able to withstand tropical storms, so are naturally strong, durable and water resistant. This material has a natural look similar to that you could see on the jungle or forest floor. I have mostly seen it been used to create purses or bags.
Fruit leathers are much like some of the alternatives I have previously mentioned. This uses the skins and seeds (the left over bits) of fruit (Apple, Orange and grapes) to create a durable leather like material. This can be tear and water resistant making it durable and hardy. As it is from fruit it is a sustainable by-product, which also makes it a great choice. One of the top fruit leather is:
Wineleather- This is made from grape marc, which is the leftover bit from the winemaking process (Consisting of grape skins and seeds), processed in an environmentally friendly way to make a leather. This often has a rich red, burgundy look, which may be to your liking.
This goes to show that there are a number of alternatives that could be used and adopted to stop the use of leather. I understand that some of these may be hard to find or get your hands on, as they are still in development and growing in the market. However, with higher demand they will become more easily accessible and prominent in the industry. There are 12 alternative on this list and I would be incredibly surprised if you could not get hold of the item you want with one of these. For this reason and the ethical reasons you should really consider them not only for the ethics but because they provide a great fashion alternative. When purchasing any items always look at the company, as they are often proud to proclaim they are animal/ cruelty free, vegan friendly and often demonstrate other incentives such as planting more than they take to better help in the world. If you are looking for alternatives to leather I applaud your dedication to begin to help the environment and animal welfare but do make sure to do some research first. Just because it uses a potentially sustainable product doesn’t mean It is sustainable and ethical. An example of this is many of these plants are sustainable unless they are over harvests depleting their number and their impact on their respective ecosystems. Finally, I hope there is at least one alternative on this list that you want to learn about and possibly even start using as an alternative to leather not only for ethical reasons but also the wider environmental reason.