A New Kind of Flower Power: 

Innovations in Plant-Based Leather

By Amaris Norwood

In the pursuit of a vegan lifestyle, many vegans may turn to vegan leather options for apparel. While doing so might avoid the consumption of animal products and the environmental impacts of the animal skin tanning processes, the truth is that most vegan leather uses petroleum-derived materials, such as PVC and PU. These materials link vegan leather to both the plastic problem and the investment in fossil fuels.  However, recent innovations worldwide are using plant-derived materials for leather alternatives to minimize and hopefully eliminate the need for petroleum-derived materials. Below are some examples of plant-based leather innovations from different countries and regions.

India and Temple Flowers 

An India-based company, Kanpur Flowercycling, is using leftover temple flowers to make “fleather,” a plant-based leather.  This innovation has won a PETA India award for Best Innovation in Fashion. They have been in communication with luxury brands for using the material to create vegan handbags.

Photo From Fast Company

Mexico and Nopal Cactus

 In Mexico, a brand named Desserto uses organic leaves from the nopal (prickly pear) cactus, which can be 100% grown by rainwater. The product is recyclable, partially biodegradable, and soft and durable, making it usable for bags, coats, car interiors, and furniture.  The nopal cactus grows in abundance throughout Mexico, which adds to the lower impact of this leather alternative.

Photo from Green Matters 

Southern Europe and Cork

In Southern Europe, cork is being harvested to create vegan leather bags. Cork, in particular, is one of the most eco-friendly materials. Cork can be harvested from the bark of oak trees without needing to kill the tree and can be grown without pesticides or fertilizers.  Cork forests, like in the Iberian Peninsula, contain lush ecosystems and are home to endangered species. Sourcing from cork trees has helped prevent deforestation and desertification.

Photo from Danandmez.com 

UK/ Philippines and Pineapple Leather

A London-based company, Ananas Anam, has created Piñatex, which uses waste from pineapple harvests to create plant-based leather.  The company aims to have a closed-loop system by making their product fully biodegradable (currently, Piñatex uses a coat of petroleum-based resin) and require few resources to produce.  In the Philippines, where the pineapple leaf fibers are harvested and processed, farmers and rural communities receive an additional source of income. A few companies in South Africa and Rwanda have used Piñatex for their products. 

Photo from Livekindly

United States and Mushrooms/Mycelium

Though technically fungi rather than plants, mushrooms are helping create leather-alternatives. Mushroom leather uses mycelium’s naturally growing layers of foam, which are then compressed. Producers can grow the material to the size and shape needed for products. Mycelium grows abundantly, making this resource a more sustainable option. A San Francisco brand named MycoWorks has created a Fine Mycelium patented product, which interlocks the cellular structures during the growth process to increase the durability and fullness of the materials produced.

Photo from Particle 

Other countries producing plant-based leather include Italy, which uses grape waste from the Italian wine industry; Sri Lanka, which uses leaves from the hana (agave) plant; and Germany, which uses coffee for products such as gender-neutral sneakers. Additional plant-based leather sources include apples, bananas, corn, lotus leaves, olives, paper, rubber, sugarcane, and waxed cotton.

There are several topics to consider when thinking about a shift to plant-based leather. Many of the innovations are still being combined with petroleum-based materials to produce a final product.  However, some of the companies are already working to divest from materials such as PVC and PU.  We also have to think about the longevity of these products as they grow in popularity; buying products with shorter lifespans has ecological implications.  Luckily, creators in the plant-based space often consider these ecological implications, so longevity innovations are most likely being made or at least considered. Furthermore, if there is an increase in using plant materials for leather alternatives, what are the land use and water use implications?  We, fortunately, are seeing several of these products use agricultural and plant waste rather than growing new resources, but if plant-based leather consumption increases, will waste materials be enough to meet the market's demand sustainably? The use of agricultural waste to make products can provide farmers with an additional source of income. Still,we also have to consider the working conditions of these farmers as they take on extra work demanded by supplementary companies.

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