“Pleather” (a portmanteau of the words plastic and leather) has been around for a century. Naugahyde, a vinyl coated fabric, was developed in 1920 in the US and was the first rubber-based artificial leather. Lifestyles have changed and technology has advanced since then. Vegetarianism, veganism, and flexitarianism are on the rise and have led to a growing interest in plant-based products. Vegan leather alternatives are the latest development meeting consumers’ needs for sustainable, planet-friendly leather products. Plant-based leather appeals to eco-conscious consumers looking for cruelty-free and animal-free alternatives to animal skins. Sustainable fashion with a focus on faux leather sneakers is in demand. In addition, accessories and cars want a piece of the action and are offering leather-free options.
Infinium Global Research estimates the global vegan leather market will reach up to $89.6 billion by 2025, with a CAGR of 49.9%. According to data from Google Adwords, vegan-related searches on Google increased by 47% in 2020. Furthermore, research from Chef’s Pencil, found that more than 10 million Google searches are done every year for vegan non-food products such as shoes, cosmetics, bags, leather, and laundry detergent. Fashion houses and sneaker brands are designing innovative sustainable fashion using a variety of materials. Ingredients from fruits, plants, and waste are a few of the latest developments.
Food Grade Sneakers
Brands are experimenting with fruits such as pineapple, apple, and cactus as well as a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast to create sneakers made from vegan leather alternatives. In partnership with Dr. Theanne Schiros, assistant FIT professor, NYC sneaker brand Public School created a “backyard compostable” sneaker made from a “leather” substitute grown using a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, which is a key ingredient in kombucha. According to Dr. Schiros, the leather substitute has up to a 97% lower carbon footprint than synthetic polyurethane (PU) leather. Nike partnered with Piñatex to design a new sneaker range made from cruelty-free, vegan pineapple leather. The Nike Happy Pineapple collection features five popular models including Air Force 1, Air Max 90, Air Max 95, Air Zoom, and Free Run Trail Premium sneakers. Beyond Leather Materials, a Copenhagen-based material company has introduced Leap, which stands for LEftover APples. It is “a highly sustainable plant-based leather alternative created from upcycled apple waste from the juice and cider industry.” H&M and Mexican cactus-based leather company Desserto® collaborated on vegan faux leather Science Story Sandals made from a naturally-tanned prickly pear.
For its 100th anniversary, Gucci released its first-ever range of vegan shoes in three styles: Gucci Basket, Gucci New Ace, and Gucci Rhyton. Inspired by the Greek goddess Demeter, the brand developed Demetra, its own vegan leather alternative. According to Gucci, the new material is made with 77% plant-based raw materials, and also includes viscose, wood pulp compounds from sustainably managed forest, and recycled steel. UGG® introduced the Plant Power collection in three fashionable footwear styles: Fluff Sugar Platform, Fluff Sugar Sandal, and Neumel Natural. The vegan shoes are made from carbon-neutral plant-based materials including “SugarSole foam made with renewable sugarcane and plant-based Tencel branded Lyocell fibers that come from responsibly harvested trees.” Vans has launched Eco Theory, a new earth-conscious vegan range featuring Vans’ classic style. The shoes are made from sustainable materials such as organically grown cotton for the canvas, natural rubber for the soles, and laces made from hemp. Additionally, the footbeds are lined with cork, while all the inks and glues are water-based.
Ocean plastic, party balloons, and cotton byproducts are a few examples of recent discarded materials that are being transformed into new shoes. Lisbon-based brand Undo for Tomorrow released Nuven shoes, which feature vegan suede made from recycled bottles that are water repellent. The sneaker uses a bamboo lining and has multicolored soles made from discarded party balloons and leftover tires. “Turning trash into trainers” is Portuguese brand Effekt footwear’s tagline which was inspired by medieval chemists that tried to turn scrap metal into gold. The brand crafts sustainable sneakers constructed from reclaimed ocean plastic, recovered footwear industry waste, and recycled textiles. NiLuu is a luxury loungewear brand that designs kimonos, wrap tops, pillowcases, and sleep masks. The products are produced in Turkey and use vegan silk made from Cupro, a PETA-approved fiber derived from cotton byproducts. In addition, the waste from the production process is recycled and used to generate power.
Vegan Leather Moves To Accessories & Cars
Like sneakers, consumers are looking for leather alternatives for their accessories and cars. Vegan leather bag brand Lambert announced it will open its first flagship store this fall in Montreal. The products use PU (polyurethane) vegan leather, and the store will be characterized by different “zones” for customers to discover and interact with the products. Hermès and MycoWorks spent three years collaborating to create Sylvania, a high-end sustainable vegan leather alternative made from mushrooms. Hermès announced plans to incorporate the material into its “Victoria” travel bag by the end of 2021.
Last year, Ford Motor Company launched an all-electric, leather-free Mustang Mach-E crossover SUV, which was awarded the PETA’s eCow-Friendly Award. Volvo C40 is the first Volvo model in history to be designed as an all-electric vehicle and has a “100% leather-free interior, including steering wheel, gear shifter and upholster.” Mini by BMW announced it will stop offering leather interiors in all new models. According to the brand, instead of leather, the new seats will be made entirely from recycled fabric, with an underlining that is 70% recycled.
Plant-based ingredients as an alternative to animal-based materials are a center of innovation across a plethora of products. Vegan leather alternatives are one of the many materials being explored and on-trend. Expect to see leather alternates made from plants, fruits, and waste used in design, fashion, home décor, and the automotive industry.