These truly eco friendly vegan leather alternatives should make the naysayers abolish animal leather forever!
I must confess: at the earlier days here at Eluxe, we were horrified to learn that some of the bags and shoes we thought were eco-friendly due to their ‘vegan’ credentials were actually guilty of the worst kind of greenwashing. They promoted themselves as ‘cruelty free’ ‘eco leather’, but neglected to mention they were also petroleum-based, heavily polluting and toxic.
Sadly, some vegan accessories promoted by the likes of allegedly ‘eco friendly’ brands like Vivienne Westwood were actually no better for the environment than a pair of plastic flip flops from Walmart. Depressing!
But then we discovered that there ARE some genuinely eco friendly vegan leathers out there! And now we simply can’t promote them enough.
And guess what? Some of the world’s most prestigious fashion brands are already using them, putting these materials in greater and greater demand.
Why is real leather bad?
It should be obvious to anyone with a soul that killing animals for fashion is cruel. Animals raised for leather are almost always badly abused and neglected. They spend the last part of their too-short lives in crowded trucks, before being slaughtered, bled, and skinned. These poor animals helplessly watch in horror their companions go to their deaths. Even in their desperate state, they cannot escape.
And while some believe leather is mainly a by-product of the meat and dairy industry, that’s not 100% true. In fact, most leather comes from animals that were raised and killed not for food, but exclusively for their skin.
To make matters worse, most ‘real’ leather comes from countries where animal welfare laws are either non-existent or not enforced, such as India and China.
Bad for the planet, too!
If you still think that all that pain and suffering is justified because leather is somehow ‘natural’, think again.
Most leather produced around the world is tanned using chrome, which is highly toxic and carcinogenic. Even in developed countries like the USA, dangerous chemicals, including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives, and various oils, dyes, and finishes, some of them cyanide-based, are used. These chemicals make their way into our water table, harming wildlife and marine life, as well as human beings.
So no wonder that people who work with leather die younger and get more diseases than the average population. In fact, even in ultra-developed and regulated Sweden and Italy, studies of leather-tannery workers showed cancer risks “between 20% and 50% above [those] expected.”
And let’s not forget that raising animals for leather creates loads of waste and pollution. Or that many trees are cut down to create space for factory farms and food for cattle.
Why vegan leather alternatives are always a better option
No consumer product is perfect. And vegan leather is no exception.
Most plant-based vegan leathers still make some use of PU or other additives either as a stabiliser in the material itself or as a backing. However, compared to animal leather or 100% petroleum-based synthetics, we think plant-based vegan leathers are still by far the most eco-friendly options available.
In fact, when done right, vegan accessories are way more environmentally friendly than their leather counterparts.
And luckily, there are increasing numbers of evermore eco friendly vegan alternatives to leather available today.
Curious to see what they are? Keep reading!
17 Truly Sustainable Vegan Leather Alternatives
The first eco friendly vegan leather on our list may surprise you: paper. While it may be hard to believe that paper can be as strong as leather, don’t forget that we have featured an actual cathedral made from cardboard before. So if you can do architecture with it, it can certainly be strong enough for a handbag!
Botega Veneta realised this when it created their gorgeous paper Carta Giapponese bag, which you can see below.
This elegant clutch is made of tightly woven washi, a delicate paper derived from the bark of the fast-growing kozo tree (a Japanese relative of the common mulberry). Once made, the washi is cut, then its edges are carefully woven.
Brands using this sustainable vegan leather: Obviously, Botega Veneta, mentioned above. But also But other designers, such as Doshi, Paper Handbags by Ilvy Jacobs, and Engage Green have also made incredible use of paper in their designs.
Images: Bottega Veneta
Long used as a water-resistant, organic material in floor tiling, cork is widely regarded as being one of the most ecologically friendly materials around.
It’s easily recycled, completely natural, and sourcing from cork oak forests for various industries helps prevent desertification and deforestation.
Mainly harvested from Southern Europe, there is a particular cork forest in the Iberian Peninsula that is essential to the protection of endangered species in the region. And shopping cork bags can really help with that!
With its naturally waterproof qualities and organic texture, no wonder it has been used by large brands like Chanel and Louboutin, as well as smaller, more eco-friendly ones, too.
3. Recycled Rubber
Some rubber, such as that used in inner tubes, can actually have quite a leathery texture and density. This makes it the perfect eco friendly vegan leather for fashion accessories.
Brands using this sustainable vegan leather: Paguro, for example, is one brand that makes stylish unisex bags and sassy cuffs from the easy-to-care for material. The recycled rubber they use (pictured below) imitates the look of fine grain, matte leather, which translates beautifully into their various accessory designs.
Laura Zabo is another designer using the stuff. She’s replaced leather for upcycled inner tubes in everything from belts and shoes to guitar straps.
4. Waxed Cotton
Waxed cotton, preferably organic, is a perfect substitute for leather.
The material is also pliable, waterproof, and unlike leather, it’s easily washable, cutting down on specialist textile cleaning bills, and also saving the environment from more dry cleaning chemicals.
Brands using this sustainable vegan leather: Big brands, such as 7 for all Mankind and Marc Jacobs have long used this for jeans and bags, respectively.
Image below: celticandco.com
5. Apple Leather
When the apple falls from the tree, I bet you didn’t expect it to be turned into a leather bag? By now we’re used to some fruit based materials such as orange peels and banana skins being fashioned into clothing textiles. But apples?
This is a new form of eco friendly vegan leather, and we’re super thrilled that that apple waste can make a textile that is so incredibly chic, whilst being cruelty free.
Brands using this sustainable vegan leather: Wondering where you can buy luxurious vegan accessories made from apple leather? It’s easier than you’d think! Happy Genie makes chic handbags (below), as do Svlala and Veggani (below), which is a super-sustainable brand because they also use recycled plastic bottles for the lining of their backpacks and handbags.
This material is made from wasted parts of the pineapple bush, and is 100% vegan friendly and is also ethical in the sense that it gives pineapple farmers yet another source of income from their crops.
The fabric feels like thick cowhide leather, is watertight and very durable. No wonder more and more shoe and bag brands are using it! In fact, H&M recently created a bunch of cowboy boots from the stuff.
7. MuSkin Mushroom Leather
One of the coolest forms of eco friendly vegan leather comes from mushrooms.
You can actually grow this mushroom leather to the size and shape you need for any given design. How cool is that? It needs to be waterproofed, but this can be done in a simple, non-chemical way, making MuSkin completely biodegradable and eco-friendly. Who wouldn’t love to have a bag made from this vegan alternative to leather?
Brands using this sustainable vegan leather: The brands Muskin and Mycoworks are making a leather from mushroom mycelium. And rather amazingly, Hermès partnered with MycoWorks to develop an eco-friendly version of its classic Victoria bag. However, sadly, this bag is FAR from vegan. It contains calf skin!
Dead baby cow on our arms? Um, hard pass.
8. The Hana Plant (Agave Plant)
Artisans of Sri Lanka are using the thick leaves that grow from the sustainable hana plant and using these to yield yet another form of eco friendly vegan leather.
The hana plant produces a fine fibre that’s then woven into accessories that are normally made of leather, like wallets, handbags and computer cases.
Brands using this sustainable vegan leather: Kantala products is one brand that uses the material gorgeously – and not only that, but all their products are coloured using all natural dyes, too!
9. Large Leaves
This eco friendly vegan leather is incredibly lightweight and can even withstand tropical storms, so you can take these gorgeous bags, wallets and other vegan friendly accessories along with you anywhere you go, from shopping sprees to impromptu trips to the beach.
Leaves are soaked in water, dyed, arranged flat together to dry. Drying the leaves bond them and provide a large sheet of the leaf material. After that, the leaf layers mended with cotton to provide a soft interior and structure.
Brands using this sustainable vegan leather: Bark and Leaf is a brand that transforms natural, raw materials into urban everyday items made from from banana, rain tree and lotus leaves. Tree Tribe and Elpis Studio also use leaf leather to make their bags and accessories.
10. Recycled Materials
I think it’s fair to say we’re all aware of the environmental impact single use plastic is having on our planet. So we were super grateful to hear about vegan leather alternatives made from recycled plastics.
Many vegan bag brands use PET bottles and deadstock nylon and PU fabric to make their accessories. That’s great news! And the even better news? There’s a new brand called REMEANT that uses junk that usually ends up in your backyard. Think: plastic bags, plastic cutlery, and hotel shower caps. Available in a range of colours, shades and textures, REMEANT is a highly durable textile that is also water-resistant, making it the perfect fabric for hard-wearing handbags, home textiles, and clothing.
11. Coffee Leather
What feels a bit like cork and suede had a baby, and smells like a freshly made latte? It’s coffee leather, of course!
And no wonder: just look at that natural brown hue, and all the different textures coffee leather can achieve. I can’t wait until they start making handbags from this eco friendly vegan leather!
Brands using this sustainable vegan leather: Nat2 is one brand that is already using this material to create unisex sneakers that are in high demand.
12. Wine/Grape Leather
What’s the only thing that may smell better than coffee leather? Wine leather, of course! Vegea Company is already producing another kind of eco friendly vegan leather from winemaking by-products like grape peels and seeds.
If course, it comes in the natural hues of wine: blush, bordeaux, burgundy and so on. I love the fact that it can be printed to look like any kind of animal skin you like, from ostrich and cow to snake.
But the best part? This material will soon be available on a mass scale! In fact, H&M is making a bunch of gorgeous vegans handbags and shoes from the stuff, in partnership with Vegea. The eco-friendly collections will also feature a new dye made from coffee grounds.
13. Cactus Leather
Also known as nopal leather or Desserto, this eco friendly vegan leather is made from the sun-dried fibres of cactus plants in Mexico. It’s durable, smooth and water-resistant. So much so, you can use it to make anything from belts and bags to coats and shoes.
14. Apple Leather
Juice takes up a lot of fruit. Which is fine. But what do you do with the leftover fibres? Make plant based alternatives to leather, of course!
Apple leather is really taking off as one of the top plant based vegan leathers. And with good reason! It’s durable, easy to dye, and brings the zero food waste factor to the table.
But that’s not all! It’s also biodegradable within 3 years, if composted correctly. Moreover, apple skin is OEKO-Tex Standard 100 certified.
15. Tomato Leather
Pineapple? Check. Apples? Check. Cactus? Check. And now, the company Bioleather has developed a biodegradable leather alternative made from tomato plant waste.
The fabric, called tomato composite, is made by extracting cellulose fibres from the waste and is said to be lightweight, easy to clean, and resistant to water and abrasions. This new vegan leather won Best Innovation in Textile at the PETA Vegan Fashion Awards in 2021 and is now being used to make shoes and bags.
Brands using this sustainable vegan leather: Still experimental.
16. Banana Leaves
Meet a vegan leather alternative that’s purely from naturally grown Abacá banana plants! It’s called Bananatex, and the company that makes it says it has created a ‘truly circular alternative to the synthetic fabrics that dominate the market today’. We believe it!
Bananatex is cultivated in the Philippine highlands within a natural ecosystem of sustainable mixed agriculture and forestry. The plant is self-sufficient, requires no pesticides, fertiliser or extra water.
Brands using this sustainable vegan leather: Stella McCartney made this gorgeous vegan bag, below. Want!
17. Coconut Leather
This eco friendly vegan leather alternative is made from organic and sustainable bacterial cellulose. It is grown on agricultural waste sourced from the coconut industry. This bio-composite material feels very much like ‘real’ leather. It’s flexible, breathable, durable, and water-resistant, which means no plastic coating is necessary. It’s perfect for everything from shoes to bags and even umbrellas.
Brands using this sustainable vegan leather: Malai is the only one that we know of. But they do great stuff! (Pictured below).
Do you know of any other eco friendly vegan leather products? Let us know in the comments, below!