Evidence that humans used leather for shoes and clothing dates all the way back to 1300 BC, and it is still a popular fabric choice today.
It is durable, breathable, natural, and incredibly easy to come by as it is a by-product of the meat industry. While I can’t fault it for being a natural product, and I am all for natural fabrics (since synthetics can cause discomfort and rashes on our skin), leather is made from animal hide, which unfortunately always means slaughter. According to Born Free USA “More than 139 million cows, calves, sheep, lambs, and pigs are killed for food each year, and skin accounts for roughly 50% of the total byproduct value of cattle. With the low profit margin for each head of cattle (about $3 a head), the meat industry relies heavily on skin sales to remain profitable.” What this means to me – If we find alternatives to leather, just as we are to meat, we can lower the demand for slaughter and give our money to companies that make great, natural, vegan fabrics that can be made kindly and sustainably. Today, I would like to introduce you to five amazing and durable natural fabrics that leave the leather in their dust.
Cork comes from cork oak trees, and it is just about as good as it gets in terms of sustainable materials. Unlike most natural sources, a cork oak tree is not cut down in order to harvest the cork. After a cork oak tree reaches 25 years old, a layer can be chopped off every nine years; and since each tree can live for hundreds of years, they provide cork for many generations to come! Plus, each time the cork is harvested, the tree absorbs more CO2 to aid in the bark’s regeneration process. Regularly harvested cork trees store three to five times more CO2 than those left unharvested and helps to keep our air clean, so it really is in our best interest to grow and harvest cork.
While cork is commonly used for wine bottles, it also makes for a fantastic fabric! Cork is flexible, water resistant and can be just as strong as leather. By The Sea Collection uses recycled, offcuts and spare sheets of cork to make their beautiful bags in order to decrease waste as sustainability is at the core of their business. I love the natural cork designs with hints of colour, uniquely splashed onto each bag. Cork and colour are perfect for summer style, especially because it is so easy to keep clean (so you don’t need to feel guilty if a bit of your ice cream drips onto it at the beach)
When you think of nature, I would bet you think of leaves, but did you know leaves can make a great natural material too? Leaves are at the center of sustainable brand Thamon’s designs. Each piece is made by hand using fallen leaves that are dyed and treated with an environmentally friendly polymer to restore and enhance the leaves' properties. Using leaves also means that no piece is identical, so everything is beautifully unique.
Thamon uses a mixture of leaf leather and cork leather to create their bags and each one is elegantly designed to be as durable as they are beautiful. We have also added Tree Tribe's beautiful and unique leaf leather bags to our collection, who work with artisans all over the world and plant 10 trees with every purchase.
Pinatex is made from pineapple leaves. The pineapple leaves are stripped into fine fibres through a process called decortication. These fibres are converted into a 'mesh' like material and then go through a manufacturing process. According to Ahimsa Collective, the production of Pinatex has an incredibly positive environmental impact because “'biomass' is produced in the decortication process. This 'bio-mass' can then be converted into organic fertilizer or biogas and sold. Therefore, both the extraction of the fibres and the production of biomass can provide additional revenue streams to pineapple farming communities.”
Pinatex is durable, breathable, light and flexible, making it a great natural alternative to leather that has an incredibly small environmental footprint because pineapple leaves are currently just a waste product. It blows my mind that we are still creating new processes and fabrics every year that are able to make our world more sustainable, while looking gorgeous!
Strange as it may sound, there is a type of washable paper that is used as a leather alternative. Jacron paper is a craft paper mainly used for jean badges. It is durable enough for everyday wear and doesn’t fall apart in water unlike most paper varieties. This is still relatively new to the market as a complete product, but has proven to be a strong material, and a great vegan contender to leather.
Bare Instinct has also produced paper-based products from a material known as Washable Paper. Washable paper is made from cellulose fibre that comes from wood. Each bag is also fully lined with high-quality hemp and organic cotton denim fabric.
The cactus leather you will find on Velvety is from a wonderful New Zealand based business called Velvet Heartbeat.
Their cactus leather comes from a ranch in Mexico that uses mature cactus leaves to process into leather. This means none of the cactus are completely cut down, and there is a new harvest every 6-8 months. The mature leaves are then dried under the sun for three days, avoiding the use of any extra energy to assist the drying process. As if that wasn't enough to love, any remaining organic cactus material is exported and sold into the food industry, which is a great example of how natural and safe their product and process is, plus a wonderful way to minimise waste.
Rubber is an extremely versatile material used for a plethora of products including car tires, washing up gloves, gumboots, elastic bands and, well, rubbers. While you can get synthetic rubber (usually neoprene) natural rubber is made from latex, a runny white liquid that is found inside certain plants and trees. Rubber is strong, stretchy, flexible (elastic), durable, and waterproof, plus it can be made soft or hard making it useful for a huge range of objects.
Upcycled Byron Bay uses recycled inner tubes to create a sustainable range of bags that are beautiful, tough, and make use of a great material that was otherwise going to waste. They also made beautiful and intricate jewelry from innertubes. I love that the same waste material can have a second life as creating such different, useful, and beautiful products!
For a long time, I thought that ‘vegan leather’ was just a fancy way of saying ‘plastic leather’. But now, there are so many natural products to use instead that I believe there is a style out there to suit everyone.
Which leather alternative is your favourite?
About the author: Chloe is an ethical lifestyle writer and video maker known online as Be Kind Coco. She loves cats and a good cuppa and is on a mission to make ethical living easy.