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12 Alternatives to Leather!

Updated: Dec 13, 2021


Highland cattle with hair in eyes laying in long grass.
Highland Cattle

Currently, there are many products that use leather, as its core material but it is also found within many more items. This included belts, shoes, wallets, bag and 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 reason 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 a 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:

Cork:

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 harvest 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 look with both a light and dark finish. To me it gives an earth 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.

Corkor dark brown cork briefcase
Corkor Cork Briefcase

Tree Bark Leather:

This is much like cork and comes from fast growing, sustainable timber and renewable forest 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.

Tree Bark Leather Jacket on model.
Tree Bark Leather Jacket

Paper:

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 recyclable 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.

Paper Wallet on typical American envelope.
Paper Wallet

Recycled Rubber:

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.

Rubber necklace/ jewelry on model.
Rubber Necklace

Piñatex:

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.

White and gold Pinatex bags, Shoes & Accessories
Pinatex Bags, Shoes & Accessories

Waxed Cotton:

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 chemical. As this 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.

Top part to waxed cotton jacket.
Waxed Cotton Jacket

Coolstone ‘Leather’:

Coolstone 'Leather' Laptop Sleeve
Coolstone 'Leather' Laptop Sleeve

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.

Ocean 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 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.

Blue Ocean Lather Sandal
Ocean Lather Sandal

MuSkin:

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 leather 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 m