March 16, 2019 at 10:00AM by CWC
My best friend was diagnosed with celiac disease when we were in high school, about six or seven years before gluten-free became mainstream. As her best friend, I had the distinct joy of trying out the (small amount of) gluten-free baked goods that were available at the time, and they were terrible. Flash forward, and TBH you can find some gluten-free goods that taste better than their wheat-based counterparts.
I’m reminded of this as I try to put into words the trajectory of vegan leather. Before “sustainable fashion” became more mainstream, some of the only real leather alternatives you had were made out of new plastic. The first vegan leather jacket I purchased was, unfortunately, made out of 100 percent plastic. So, not only was it not great for the environment, it was also squeaky if I even slightly moved my arms. It also made me super sweaty because—surprise—plastic is not very breathable.
In the many years since then, I’ve become a much more conscious consumer. So while leather is bad for the environment, just because a fabric is vegan doesn’t necessarily mean it’s environmentally friendly.
Luckily, there has been innovation in recent years in leather alternative fabrics—they look like leather and feel like leather, but aren’t leather. They’re also better for the environment than leather and leather alternatives like plastic. They’re like the amazing gluten-free mini cake I had yesterday versus the cardboard-y gluten free bagel of 13 years ago. Only, you know: fashion.
Here, four innovative leather alternatives that are a part of this new wave of fashion innovation that’s cruelty-free, without adding to our epic plastic problem.
Carmen Hijosa, PhD, worked in the leather industry until she visited the Philippines and realized the toll that producing leather goods was taking on the environment and the people there. She was inspired to create an eco-friendly alternative out of pineapple waste, and spent the next few years earning her PhD and creating Piñatex. Piñatex is made from the fibers of the leaves of pineapples; what’s unique about it is that it upcycles waste from pineapple harvests, so it minimally impacts the environment. It’s been used as a leather alternative for clothing, shoes, accessories, and even home furnishings. The jacket above from Altiir was made out of Piñatex.
Mushrooms are everywhere: In our coffee, our supplements, and soon, our wardrobes. Bolt Threads—a company that specializes in making bioengineered textiles—created a sustainable leather look-alike out of mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms. They are able to grow it in a lab, and the material is biodegradable. While currently products made of Mylo have not hit the market, Stella McCartney created a prototype Falabella bag out of the material, and Bolt Threads has plans to release its own handbag.
The impossibly chic French footwear brand Veja released a sneaker last month made from corn (yes, corn!). The Campo is made from a blend of corn waste, canvas, and polyurethane. This material is 63 percent biodegradable and produced in Italy. It feels incredibly similar to leather, with the added bonus of being more durable and super easy to clean. (Which, as a person who is accident- and spill-prone, is a huge bonus.) They say the Campo is only the beginning of what they have planned for this innovative leather alternative.
Zoa is a material grown in a lab, and made out of the collagen from yeast. They add a couple other enzymes, and are able to grow an animal-free material that is remarkably leather-like. It’s innovative not just because it’s brewed in a lab with minimal environmental impact—which is very, very cool—but because it’s incredibly versatile and can be molded, shaped, and texturized into whatever a designer’s heart desires. Like Mylo, however, it isn’t on the market yet—although a t-shirt made with the innovative material debuted at MoMA in 2017. According to Modern Meadow, they’re in the process of working with brands and plan to have products made out of Zoa available in the next few years.
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