In 1928, a New York City designer named Irving Schott created the world's first leather motorcycle jacket. Naming it the "Perfecto" (after his favorite cigar), Schott crafted the coat out of horsehide, a rigid, durable material that soon after became fashion's leather of choice. The first Perfectos sold for just $5.50. By the 1950s, the leather jacket was a bona fide clothing mainstay.
Today, leather is one of the most ubiquitous materials in the footwear and fashion industries. But the actual term "leather" hasn't always had the same definition that Schott would have used back in his 1920s heyday. In the last half a century, "leather" has expanded to include synthetic "pleather" variations, like polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which are not only made with fossil fuels, but also don't biodegrade. And while these alternatives are theoretically more animal-friendly, in that they don't actually require animal hides, they also aren't the eco-friendly substitute consumers may have been led to believe.
Dan Widmaier, the CEO of materials company Bolt Threads, goes so far as to state that the industry generates 35 billion square feet of leather — that's both hide and plastics, combined — each year. And all that is contributing to an environmental crisis: Emissions associated with just one pair of leather boots are about equal to those from burning a gallon of gasoline, according to Sierra Club. There are alternatives, however.
From hides derived from fruit to fabrics grown in labs, there have never been more options for shoppers and retailers alike in search of more responsible solutions. Which is excellent news, because its potential impact — especially in terms of carbon reduction — could be significant.
Leather is such a big business that despite any and all promising inroads toward more sustainable markets, it's still almost entirely dominated by two incumbents: hides and pleathers. In fact, of those 35 billion square feet of leather referenced above, approximately zero percent is accounted for by alternatives, claims Bolt Threads. But that doesn't mean there aren't options.
Generally speaking, developments are being made in three overarching categories: reprocessed waste streams, tech-enabled substitutes and historically lo-fi options, like upcycling. In the last few years, you may have spotted headlines touting innovations behind leathers being made from fruits and vegetables. The idea here is to focus on renewability, something that's by no means restricted to leather goods exclusively. How can we take something that's pure waste — like peels, rinds and even the discarded flesh of the food — and turn it into a usable good?
To date, "leather" — or materials that pass as leather, based on fashion's requirements for strength, longevity and, of course, smoothness — is being made from mango, soybean, coconut, cork and apples. Some flora, like pineapple, grape skin and cactus, have been harvested to develop proprietary fibers that can then be distributed to brands and retailers under trademarked names, like "Piñatex," "Vegea" and "Desserto," respectively.
No one alternative has enjoyed as much commercial success, however, as that which comes from mushrooms. While the process for creating mushroom leather differs for each scientist that grows it, the basic idea is this: Mushroom roots can be grown on sawdust or agricultural waste, and when they sprout, the fungus forms a thick mat, called mycelium, that can then be treated to resemble leather. And it's already being implemented within a number of fashion stalwarts.
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Last month, Hermès announced that it was set to debut a handbag created using a leather-like material made using mycelium, grown in a lab by California-based biomaterial startup MycoWorks. And in October, executives across Adidas, Lululemon, Kering and Stella McCartney confirmed respective plans to link up with the aforementioned Bolt Threads to adopt its proprietary Mylo, also made from mycelium, into its product lines on an ongoing basis.
Since Bolt Threads launched its first Mylo product in 2018, the business has been focused on growing its partnerships. Because, as Widmaier argues, an everyday consumer wouldn't buy a sheet of Mylo on their own — they would opt in for a convincing Mylo version of their favorite leather jacket, though.
"We have an outrageous amount of inbound right now, and we think that will only continue, but we also try to reach out to find people we're particularly aligned with," says Widmaier, who earned his Ph.D. in chemistry and chemical biology. "We're frantically trying to scale as much Mylo as we can."
Within the broader alternatives landscape, there's a fair amount of overlap between reprocessed waste streams and tech-enabled substitutes — that's because certain elements, like Mylo, originate from natural materials but are made renewable in labs. That's also the case with Allbirds' forthcoming Plant Leather, originally developed by Illinois-based material innovations company Natural Fiber Welding, under the name "Mirum." The technology binds together bio-ingredients like vegetable oil and natural rubber to create a 100% natural, plant-based "leather" material.
While Allbirds' Plant Leather won't hit shelves until December 2021, the company is hopeful the fabrication has legs beyond its own headquarters. Claudia Richardson, Allbirds' senior manager of material innovation, says that Plant Leather emits up to 17 times less carbon than synthetic leather, and has 40 times less carbon impact than animal leather: "That's a potential of a 95% reduction in the end products' carbon impact."
Another brand that has worked to develop its own tech-derived leather alternative in-house is von Holzhausen, the handbag label that comes courtesy of former car designer Vicki von Holzhausen. When it first launched in 2017, von Holzhausen did so only using leather that was a byproduct of the food industry, so that no animal was used only for its hide. A year later, it introduced an exclusive, animal-free material called "Technik-Leather," that von Holzhausen says helps divert plastic from landfills.
To develop Technik, von Holzhausen created a microfiber layer from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic water bottles that mimics the supple quality of animal leather. Technik's outer layer — which is water-, stain- and scratch-resistant — is then made using a 99% waste-free process in which every material used is recycled, even the water.
With a new alternative material called Banbü, von Holzhausen is venturing into the plant-based realm with a proprietary fiber made from bamboo. Bamboo itself is naturally regenerative: Not only is it the fastest-growing plant on earth, but it can also be harvested without destroying its root systems and needs relatively little water to grow. In an effort to share innovation, von Holzhausen offers its Technik and Banbü to large-scale industries — like fashion brands, automotive companies and luxury watchmakers — that traditionally use leather in its products.
Leather alternatives are also taking the form of historically lo-fi avenues, as with Deadwood, which crafts upcycled leather goods out of recycled materials primarily sourced from furniture manufacturers, tanneries and textile waste hubs.
When co-founders Carl Ollson and Felix von Bahder first decided to venture into business together in 2012, their approach wasn't initially eco-minded. "We realized there were a lot of ugly leather jackets lying around," says von Bahder, laughing. The more they worked with upcycled leather, the more they came face to face with insurmountable leather waste: "It's thousands of tons of perfectly good leather that's thrown in piles and set on fire, all across the globe where leather products are being made. That's what took Deadwood from just being a hobby to a calling."
In the nine years since they launched Deadwood, Ollson and von Bahder have grown well-acquainted with some of fashion's most systemic challenges, including waste. There's also a widespread lack of innovation that may make the industry less inclined to make top-to-bottom changes — including, say, phasing out animal hide — in the interest of a less destructive supply chain.
"Every industry is faced with challenges," says von Bahder. "In fashion, it's always been about finding the next cool thing. But now, all of a sudden, we have to do real work and real research, and that, I think, takes some getting used to for many in the industry."
Bolt Threads is keenly aware of this hesitancy, which is why it's in the business of partnerships with those same companies that could stand to bring leather alternatives to market.
"What we've learned is that fashion brands don't have a deep history of innovation driving the product,'" Widmaier says. "I can point you to a long chain of electronics companies that are in their sixth generation, but that a new startup killed. It doesn't happen that way in fashion. And because of that, there's a lack of the deep scientific understanding that's required to actually bring true innovation to markets."
Leather alternatives aren't a silver-bullet solve, however. Developments like Mylo or Plant Leather or Technik require real trial and error, and as Widmaier notes, "that's measured in decades, usually." Fashion may not have decades to come around: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an intergovernmental body of the United Nations, has stated that to avoid climate catastrophe, global emissions must be halved by 2030.
von Holzhausen, for one, believes there will be a tipping point once more traditional companies start to offer non-leather options within their product lines. "It will parallel what we're currently seeing in the meat industry, with meat alternatives showing up everywhere from to fast-food restaurants to fine dining," she says.
Maybe, just maybe, that's something we can be optimistic about.
"The good news is that the last five years has seen an exponential growth of material innovation tackling biological alternatives, not only for leather, but also fossil fuel, dyes, chemicals, fibers and fabrics," says Anne-Ro Klevant Groen, marketing and communications director at sustainable fashion initiative Fashion for Good. "There's more awareness amongst investors, brands and consumers alike of the coming wave of new solutions. More capital is available, more partnerships are opening up and more consumers are demanding sustainable alternatives."