As the prior generation of plastic-based alternatives wanes, a host of new, animal and plant-based options are sprouting up — but challenges remain for unseating conventional leather.
In the race to find newer, more environmentally friendly materials to make just about every durable good, startups are looking towards leather as the next textile to improve. While there is no shortage of “vegan” leather options on the market, many of these products are made from petroleum-based materials — and their use cancels out any potential benefit from avoiding the larger impacts of traditional leather.
The negative impacts of the global, legacy use of leather are well documented — toxic tanning processes, deforestation linked to cattle farming, and the immense amount of water required throughout the process, just to name a few. Those issues merit discussion on their own; but as consumers become more educated about the environmental and social impacts of conventional leather, startups are engineering new alternatives to get as close to the real thing as possible while creating some sort of additional positive impact through the process.
From lionfish to coconuts
These innovators have all focused on turning surplus animal or plant resources into a usable material.
Take Florida-based Inversa, whose version of “beyond sustainable” leather is made from the skins of lionfish — an invasive species destroying ecosystems in the Atlantic. The company touts a process that creates a range of positive impacts, including freshwater savings of up to 300 gallons compared to traditional leather tanning and using zero plastic along the way.
Inversa CMO Deepika Nagarajan told Sustainable Brands™ an initial collaboration with Italian footwear brand P448 was a successful pilot for bringing the material to market, and they’re working to stay ahead of expected demand for a product that has a high ratio of strength to thickness (which traditional leather is known for).
“That was our first big commercial launch; and we have a lot of things in the pipeline,” she says.
On the other end of the spectrum, perhaps the most established example of a viable leather alternative is from the fast growth of Natural Fiber Welding, Inc’s Mirum material. The coconut and natural rubber-based material (made from “a combination of virgin natural materials and upcycled agricultural sidestreams”) comes in just one color for now; but it is quickly being adopted by apparel manufacturers of all sizes (and the company itself just closed a major funding round).
“We reached out to them early on, and it was easy to work on the R&D process with them (at the time),” says Woolly Made co-founder Jake Fromer, whose accessory company launched its first product line using the material last year.
Fromer notes that Mirum is a great product from an impact and story angle; but it doesn’t quite perform the same way as traditional leather. The singular color option remains an issue and Mirum doesn’t age in the same way as traditional leather. On the bright side, Woolly can accept Mirum products at the end of their useful life and re-integrate the material into new wallets and accessories.
It’s not yet a 1:1 swap
When people shop for something made out of traditional bovine or ovine leather, there’s a certain touch-and-feel standard they expect; as well as a beautiful, worn-in look over time. Because alternatives are made from any material except traditional hides, the end product naturally doesn’t exactly match what consumers might want from a product sold with “leather” in the name.
“From a purely aesthetic perspective, (leather alternatives) feel synthetic and not like a natural material,” says Head of Marble founder Mark Samsonovich. “The reason we’re attracted to wood and leather is because they’re natural and have an unpredictability about them. Synthetic leathers are kind of a ‘photoshopped’ version of leather, and they feel fake. They also don’t always last and do weird things over time.”
Samsonovich found a cork-based leather that was suitable for certain pieces within his brand’s furniture lineup as an alternative option for those looking for a more sustainable choice, but one that still provided a pleasing look. However, even he concedes that customers would have to forgo “certain expectations” to appreciate the value proposition of cork compared to traditional leather.
The biggest challenge for the alternative leather trade is helping consumers understand that the majority of non-plastic-based alternatives are not a straight substitute for the original product. The solution might be in scaling up through companies like Inversa and Head of Marble, where consumers and producers are already looking for better alternatives, and understand the concessions required to choose a product that’s ultimately better for the planet.
What is clear is that there’s big money and big potential here. More startups are closing bigger funding rounds; and as companies of all sizes attempt to move away from virgin plastic, the future of alternative leather is likely plant-based.