Vegan leather has come a long way: How cactus, pineapple and mushrooms are changing the game

·Senior Editor
·7 min read
Vegan leather products made, clockwise from top left, from cactus (from Desserto by Fossil), apple skins (by Sylven New York), cork (by MB Cork), pineapple leaves (from Piñatex by Nike) and mushrooms (from Mylo by Adidas). (Photos: Desserto, Sylven New York, MB Cork, Piñatex, Mylo)
Vegan leather products made, clockwise from top left, from cactus (from Desserto by Fossil), apple skins (by Sylven New York), cork (by MB Cork), pineapple leaves (from Piñatex by Nike) and mushrooms (from Mylo by Adidas). (Photos: Desserto, Sylven New York, MB Cork, Piñatex, Mylo)

Actor Sam Corlett, who plays Leif Erikson on Netflix's Vikings: Valhalla, spoke out recently about wanting to be "as authentic as possible" in the role but that "the values come in sometimes."

He was talking, interestingly enough, about his costume, originally presented to him as one made of leather.

"I hadn't worn leather in a long time … gratefully, Susan O'Connor Cave, our amazing head of costume, she ended up designing a vegan armor for me," Corlett, 26, told the Hollywood Reporter. "So that was really beautiful, I think it was cactus leather." Cactus leather is just one of the many plant-based leather alternatives available now on the ever-growing market — projected to be worth more than $89 billion by 2025 and driven by factors including concern for the environment and for animal welfare.

"Vegan materials just keep getting better, more innovative, more low-impact," says PETA campaign specialist Ashley Byrne. She stresses that traditional leather "is not sustainable" due to a combination of factors — including animal agriculture causing at least 14.5% of the world's harmful greenhouse gas emissions, the process of turning skin into leather requiring both significant resources and toxic chemicals, and the treatment of the cows themselves, part of the average 165 million land animals (not counting chickens) killed "in an intensely violent and cruel industry" for food in the U.S. each year. It's why, she says, "The future is in vegan fashion."

And while the most commonly known vegan leather is still "pleather"— a simulation made of plastic, typically polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), neither sustainable nor biodegradable — there's now a cornucopia of greener, plant-based innovations that bring hope on many fronts, made of such wide-ranging materials as apple skins, cactus leaves, mushrooms and pineapple plants, many of which are actually made from the waste materials of these industries, offering a sustainable symbiosis. Here's a bit more about some of the emerging options:

Cactus

The founders of Mexico-based company Desserto, Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez, gained firsthand knowledge of leather's environmental hazards — Lopez through working with leather in the auto industry and Cazarez through the fashion industry.

It's what inspired them to find a sustainable alternative that wasn't plastic and, after much research, they found their answer in cactus — the most abundant plant in Mexico, and one that is both regenerative, requires little water and actually absorbs carbon dioxide. In 2019, the duo patented their process: Cut the leaves, clean them, mash them, dry them for three days, mix them with nontoxic chemicals and shape and color them into biodegradable leather that lasts for 10 years. Research specialist Unique Vance of Circumfauna, an initiative of Collective Fashion Justice, which aims to centralize research about the use of animals in fashion, is a fan, noting, "Desserto's supply chain is also ethical and transparent." Brands including Karl Lagerfeld and A_C Official have become partners.

Fruit skins

Hannes Parth, CEO of Frumat in Italy, is the innovator behind Appleskin, which is yes, made from apple skins. When Parth decided he wanted to create a material from food waste so as to not create more waste, he experimented — starting back in 2007 — with the skins of everything from carrots and sugarcane to grapes and apples. Apples won, since they are produced year-round, and after first using the skins, discarded from juice factories, to successfully produce paper, he took several more years to come up with something strong enough to be used as leather — which, while containing about 50% polyurethane and textile, is still more sustainable than full pleather. It's now used for shoes and bags by companies including Sylven New York and the Paris-based Good Guys Don’t Wear Leather.

Another version comes from PEEL Lab in Japan and, in mango-skin version, from Dutch company Fruitleather Rotterdam.

Cork

A smooth and speckled and renewable alternative, such as from Portugal-based Corkor and MB Cork, is made from cork-oak bark that's removed without harming the tree — but only once the tree is 25 years old and then every nine years thereafter (actually benefiting the tree if done consistently). Collected bark is dried for six months, then the shavings are boiled and steamed to improve their elasticity, molded into blocks and sliced into thin sheets, eventually fused to a backing of cotton or polyurethane for support.

Mushrooms

Mylo, created and patented by Bolt Threads in California, is made of mycelium cells — from the underground root-like system of mushrooms — grown on beds of sawdust and other organic material. "Once the mycelium is harvested, the remaining material is composted," according to Mylo's website. "We then process and dye that sheet of mycelium and it becomes the Mylo material that gets used to make footwear, handbags, wallets, phone cases, and other gorgeous products," just some of which come from Adidas, Stella McCartney, lululemon and even Hermès. "The mycelium we grow for Mylo material is produced in days, unlike the resource-intense process of raising livestock, which can take years," notes the company, adding that while its product does contain 15 to 50% plastics, it is renewable, and the mycelium waste can be composted.

Vegan leather shoes from mushroom mycelium and samples of vegan bio leather, eco friendly concept
Vegan leather shoes made from mycelium, the root system of mushrooms. (Photo: Getty Images)

Pineapple

Faux leather made from waste leaves of pineapple leaves is known by the trademark Piñatex. "These leaves are a byproduct from existing pineapple harvest, the raw material requires no additional environmental resources to produce," explains a spokesperson for Piñatex, founded by "ethical entrepreneur" Carmen Hijosa, of Spain, who undertook a PhD at the Royal College of Art to develop her product. After pineapples are harvested, leaves "are collected in bundles, then the long fibers are extracted using semi-automatic machines" and left to dry naturally in the sun (or in ovens during the rainy season) and put through a purification process, before finally getting mixed with a corn-based polylactic acid and turned in the non-woven mesh Piñafelt, coated with a layer of PU. It's now used in a range of mainstream vegan fashion items, from Nike sneakers to H&M boots and bags.

Bego boots, made with piñatex. (Photo: Piñatex)
Bego boots, made with piñatex. (Photo: Piñatex)

Mirum, bacteria and more

Some innovators are actively looking for ways around using any plastic coating or backing, including Natural Fiber Welding, a startup that's created a new material called Mirum — created with a PU-free blend of plant-based sources including coconut husk fibers, natural rubber and cork. Its creation also produces no wastewater, and the material is durable; it was used recently by Ralph Lauren in its Team USA uniforms for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

"Mirum can be used for footwear, automobiles and more," says Vance, explaining, "It can be recycled into new Mirum or ground up and composted, making its lifecycle completely circular. It is much less resource-intensive than animal and synthetic leathers."

Up-and-coming Gen Z fashion designers have also been experimenting with even newer, more sustainable materials. That includes Anna Cain, who is about to complete her BFA in a self-designed major in sustainable textiles at Parsons School of Design. On TikTok, she shares snippets of her creations, including bacterial cellulose.

"It is cellulose made by bacteria! An example is the SCOBY in kombucha: the bacteria and yeast that ferment the tea house themselves by producing cellulose fiber that collects on top of the liquid," Cain tells Yahoo Life, crediting process innovator Suzanne Lee of Biofabricate. "The flesh-like mat grows to the size of the container, then can be washed and dried to form a piece of fabric similar to leather."

But the bottom line, says Byrne, is that "whether polyurethane or pineapple or cactus leather, it is just leagues ahead of animal leather in terms of being environmentally friendly."

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