Sustainable alternatives to leather can be tricky. Often, they are plastic, toxic, of poor quality and definitely not breathable. Thankfully there is a whole new world of plant-based leathers out there, made from grapes, apples, cacti and pineapples. Annick Ireland, the co-founder of the ethical fashion platform Immaculate Vegan, guides us through these next-gen textiles and tells us why we don’t need animal leather.
Annick, what inspired you to launch Immaculate Vegan and learn all about vegan leather?
I became vegan after adopting a greyhound from the Retired Greyhound Trust and making the link between the pets we love and all animals. And it was then that I started looking for vegan alternatives in fashion, starting with non-leather bags and shoes. To be honest, I found switching to vegan food easy, but fashion was much harder.
After a lot of time spent researching brands on the internet and social media, I found that there were some amazing vegan fashion brands out there, but they were hard to find. I started Immaculate Vegan as an Instagram blog to help others looking for style-led ethical and sustainable alternatives.
I also really wanted to elevate the profile of vegan fashion and show people you can be vegan and love beautiful fashion too! Developing this into a retail platform was a natural next step.
There are quite a few sustainable marketplaces out there, but the vast majority aren’t vegan and are selling items made of leather, wool and silk, which are simply not sustainable.
On your website, you reveal that “not only do leather tanneries emit toxic substances into nearby soil and waterways, but the people working in the trade are also at risk. An estimated 90% of all leather workers in Bangladesh will die before they are 50 due to exposure to chemicals.”
It is really surprising, isn’t it? We’ve been told for decades that leather is a natural material, a by-product of animal agriculture, and therefore assume it can’t be that bad, but that isn’t the case.
I became very interested in sustainability after I became vegan and so I did a lot of research in this area and talked to sustainability and materials experts. And what I found was pretty upsetting – you’ve mentioned a couple of terrible realities of leather, and there are many more.
There are a lot of myths about animal leather. We often explain that firstly animal leather isn’t a by-product, but is rather a very valuable co-product that generates huge revenues for a slaughter industry that itself creates huge suffering for animals, harm to people working in leather tanneries, and ultimately a lot of damage to our planet.
Almost all vegan alternatives to leather use less energy, water and resources, fewer toxic chemicals, and generate significantly fewer greenhouse gases.
The great news is that these days there are so many beautiful vegan alternatives to choose from instead of animal leather, including many high-quality, durable and beautiful plant-based leathers that are a world away from the ‘pleather’ options of the past. And the fashion world has moved on from old-fashioned, environmentally damaging animal materials, starting with fur, and now leather too.
Your site has some gorgeous plant-based leather made from a range of plants such as cactus, cork, apple and grape. Could you talk us through each of these leathers?
This is a really exciting area, and there is a lot of investment now going into innovative materials. Companies are creating these incredible plant-based alternative leathers that are many times more sustainable than animal leather, and of course animal free too.
Some of the most prominent vegan leathers on the market today, that are used by our pioneering brands, include Piñatex, which is made from pineapple leaf fibres, a waste product from the pineapple industry.
Grape leather is made from waste from the wine grape industry and Apple leather is from waste from the apple juice industry.
There is also Cactus leather, which uses very little water and no pesticides to grow. Another is Cork. This comes from sustainably managed forests in Portugal where the trees aren’t killed, but just partially stripped every few years, which encourages further growth.
Currently, the majority of the commercially available plant-based leathers do contain some amount of synthetics, to give the material durability, but material scientists are working towards more widely available 100% plant-based offerings.
In terms of aesthetics, I think Apple, Grape and Cactus leather all look and feel very similar to animal leather and are very soft and supple. Pinatex has a unique, ‘crinkly’ look, and it looks amazing in metallics.
How do these natural vegan leathers differ from synthetic ones?
They feel quite different – much softer and more breathable. They honestly feel and look almost identical to animal leather but they’re much more sustainable. They’re often using waste products too and many are partially biodegradable.
How long-lasting are vegan leather shoes and bags compared to animal leather? Are they waterproof?
Vegan leather has come a long way since the days of shiny, sticky “pleather” that often cracked and came apart after a brief period of use.
Durability is among the factors that stand out about the new crop of resistant vegan leathers – as they are commonly created by companies whose main ethos is slow fashion, the idea is for them to be as long-lasting as possible.
Vegan leather is very frequently waterproof. This is the upside of it being finished with synthetics. Where animal leather might require waterproofing sprays and will often rot or crack if exposed to water or dampness, vegan leather rarely does.
Plus, let’s bust a myth: animal leather breaks, too. Animal skin is not everlasting, and while some animal-based leather items can have a long life, others can end up with tears, holes and signs of wear.
Tell us some of your favourite vegan leather brands.
Oh, there are so many! I love Allkind for classic boots and preppy loafers; Minuit Sur Terre for fabulous chunky winter boots; Issy London for luxurious vegan shearling and faux fur jackets and coats; LUXTRA and Miomojo for stunning apple leather bags in minimalist designs. But I’ve personally handpicked every brand we sell, so I love them all!
Are there any new types of vegan leather, or technical developments in vegan leather, that you are excited about?
Yes, there are quite a few in development and there are a couple I find particularly exciting. One is Treekind, created by the natural materials company Biophilica.
This leaf-based textile is still in the development stages and research is still being done to ensure that the material is the best it can be. It’s made from urban plant waste, as well as agricultural and forestry waste. It uses only 1% of the water that leather production would use and is entirely vegan.
Another is Mirum, created by Natural Fiber Welding. This material eliminates any plastic-based ingredients, making it a game changer both when compared to animal skins and traditional vegan leathers. It’s made from plant waste, welded together.
Its main components are biodegradable polymers and it contains no synthetic binders or polyurethane coating. We have a couple of brands using it already, including Melina Bucher, and it feels and looks amazing. It’s also being used by several luxury brands, including Stella McCartney and Porsche.