They sound great on paper. But how green are plant based leathers, really?
By Roberta Fabbrocino
Oh my, but it can be exciting to hear about vegan leather alternatives! Pinatex, made from pineapple leaves. Desserto, created from cacti. Apple leather made from juice industry waste. It all sounds great on paper, but just how green are plant based leathers, really?
As more and more people adopt a vegan lifestyle, the vegan fashion market expands as well. And with this expansion come investments and research.
Luckily for the animals and the planet, vegan leather chemists are working wonders and creating spectacular materials that literally save lives. But why is innovation needed?
The truth is, “faux” leather alternatives have been around for a relatively short amount of time, and so there is still so much to discover and improve. Creating a material that is at the same time vegan, sustainable, durable, and accessible is far from easy. But it’s one that companies take on gladly, as it is not only ethical but also profitable. Thanks to this commitment, more innovative and sustainable vegan leathers hit the market every year.
Gone are the days when PVC (Polyvinyl chloride), a highly toxic plastic polymer, was so widely used as a replacement for traditional leather. In recent times, pineapple, apple, and cactus leathers have been some of the biggest vegan leather alternatives, taking over companies’ collections and customers’ closets.
These high-quality, vegan leathers have a lot going for them, but despite what their names may suggest, they aren’t fully biodegradable. So what are the components of these plant-based leathers? And how green are plant based leathers in reality?
How Green Are Plant Based Leathers, Really?
AppleSkin™ is a semi bio-based leather alternative born in South-Tyrol, Italy, and manufactured in Florence. This innovative vegan material is made with recycled industrial organic waste. Specifically, it’s made with the apple skins and cores recovered from the juice and jam industry in Bolzano.
This waste is recovered, pureed, dried, and milled into a fine powder. The powder is then treated, spread out onto a canvas, and turned into a leather-like material. These sheets are then combined with polyurethane (PU) to create a vegan leather that is flexible and resistant.
Even though it uses fewer resources to make than leather, PU is basically plastic, and doesn’t decompose. It’s not the most eco-friendly material.
The exact process is a trade secret, as this method was pa tented by FRUMAT, the South Tyrolean company that developed AppleSkin™. A product that in 2018 won them the Technology and Innovation Award at the Green Carpet Fashion Awards in Milan.
What we know is that for now is AppleSkin™ contains a minimum of 50% recycled apple fiber, with the remaining half being made of polyurethane. For that reason, it’s not considered biodegradable.
Piñatex is a non-woven textile made from a by-product of the fruit industry. Manufactured, marketed, and sold by the London-based company Ananas Anam, this vegan leather has waste pineapple leaf fibre as its main component.
The company currently works with farming communities in the Philippines, where, after the harvest, the suitable waste pineapple leaves are collected in bundles. The long fibers are then extracted, washed, and dried. Once they complete the purification process, they obtain a pineapple leaf fibre called PALF that gets then mixed with PLA, a corn-based polylactic acid.
When this mixture is ready, it undergoes a mechanical process. The result is Piñafelt. This non-woven mesh made of 80% waste pineapple leaf fibre and 20% PLA is the base of all Piñatex collections.
Once again, PU is combined into the mix to make a more durable fabric. Thus, Piñatex is not 100% biodegradable. But that being said, it does contain less PU than AppleLeather.
Piñatex bags below and in main image by Grey Whale
A smooth cactus leather called Desserto® was developed by Mexican entrepreneurs Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez as an alternative to animal leather and synthetic materials such as PVC.
This highly sustainable plant-based vegan leather is made from cactus, specifically from USDA certified Organic Nopales cacti grown in Zacatecas, Mexico. Cacti not only naturally regenerate soil, but they are also natural carbon sinks: so much so that Desserto’s 14 acres farm absorbs 8,100 tons of CO2 per year while generating only 15.30 tons of CO2 annually.
“These are perennial crops, meaning that we don’t have to plant them each year. After the harvest, the cut parts automatically grow back,” co-founder Adrián López Velarde explained to me for Eluxe Magazine. To make this highly recyclable, vegan leather, the mature cactus leaves are cut, cleaned, mashed, and dried. The resulting cactus fiber is then combined with a textile backer, a resin that is free from toxic substances, and a specific form of polyurethane engineered to decompose faster.
“The goal with our material is to replace as much as possible the synthetic substances with plant-derived content,” López Velarde stated during our interview.
Right now, the plant-based material takes up around 60% of the total fabric, but at Desserto®, they have been working towards reducing the percentage of synthetic materials. Thanks to their efforts, in December 2020, they’ll launch a new formulation made of 80% plant-based materials.
“The colouring of our material is achieved through organic pigments, and there are no heavy metals in those.” Mr. López Velarde added.
This material is also free from toxic chemicals, phthalates, and formaldehyde. But Is Desserto® biodegradable? The answer is…yes! They are even currently running a lab test in Germany to determine if Desserto® would biodegrade in anaerobic conditions (like in landfills), and so far, the results have been very positive.
Cactus leather shoes below by Prota Fiori
So, Are Plant Based Leathers Green?
The answer to our question is: that depends.
The less PU that’s combined with the plant based product, the better. and it seems that so far, cactus leather has not only the least PU, but a type of PU that does biodegrade. Think: plant based plastic, like corn. Piñatex is next best, followed by AppleLeather.
But that’s not to say there aren’t plant based leathers greener than these. In fact, there are already many natural leather alternatives that are both vegan and plastic-free. Cork, for example, is a green material that has been around for centuries, and just recently, has been rediscovered by both companies and consumers. Natural Fiber Welding (NFW) has developed Mirum, a highly recyclable and biodegradable, lab-grown vegan plant leather alternative. There’s also Malai, a biocomposite vegan leather made from bacterial cellulose, is biodegradable and compostable.
The very notion that vegan leather can be made from plants is quite mind-blowing. And even though not all of these plant based leathers are fully biodegradable yet, their success and work towards biodegradability show that vegan leather is undoubtedly the eco eather of the future.
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