Cover Photo: Heller Leder

Eco-friendly leather alternatives are on the rise—we asked textile innovators, technology companies and sustainable fashion experts to map out their future

The fashion industry accounts for as much as ten per cent of global carbon emissions, according to United Nations Environmental Programme—more than international flights and shipping combined. To achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius within that time, at COP26, the latest UN climate summit, signatories to the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action—including Burberry, H&M Group, Inditex, VF Corporation and Kering—upgraded their commitment, pledging to cut emissions by 50 per cent in the next ten years. “We have to do it; there is no choice unless we have already planned to head to Mars,” says Dr Gloria Lei Yao, the director of project development at The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel Limited (HKRITA) and director of the Textile Bioengineering Informatics Society. “We should be realistic: it will be a challenge for everyone to survive on the planet if we don’t change.”

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In the race to decarbonisation, one pivotal change to the supply chain is the sourcing of sustainable materials. In the luxury fashion market, there are numerous leather products—largely handbags and shoes. Leather’s carbon footprint is relatively huge because of the emissions associated with animal husbandry and the toxic chemicals used in the tanning process. Let’s face it: while brands may be shifting to organic cotton, upcycling, natural dyes and offsetting the emissions from fashion shows, they’re unlikely to ditch leather any time soon. For luxury brands such as Hermès, Prada and those in the Kering group, leather products account for about half of their sales; if the industry really wants to achieve its environmental impact goals, this would be the place to start.

Vegan Is Fashion

There is now a middle ground between plastic and animal skin: leather alternatives come in the form of lab- grown biomaterials and plant-based leather not made from polyurethane—a plastic derived from fossil fuels, which has its own environmental problems. Brands including Stella McCartney, Nike and Adidas are the early adopters of these alternatives.

Last March, Hermès collaborated with MycoWorks, a Californian biotechnology firm, on the Victoria travel bag, which combined canvas, calfskin and amber-hued Sylvania. This is a material made using Fine Mycelium, a patented technology developed to grow mycelium—the root-like structure of a fungus—with the qualities of leather. In January, the Hermès-backed startup raised US$125 million funding to scale up production of its Reishi textile, another result of Fine Mycelium technology, giving it the capacity to produce several million square feet of it each year.

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Another popular lab-grown, mycelium-based option that is ready for commercial production is Mylo mushroom leather, created by Bolt Threads. It has won the backing of a consortium of brands, including Gucci’s parent company Kering; sports giant Adidas, which is going to drop a mycelium leather version of its classic Stan Smith sneakers; Lululemon, which has used it in yoga mats and gym bags; and Stella McCartney, who launched the world’s first ever bag and garments made from Mylo in 2021. “Mylo is a bio-based, renewable and certified vegan material. It is processed and finished using green chemistry principles while maintaining high labour and sustainable manufacturing practices,” Dan Widmaier , Bolt Threads’ CEO and founder, tells Tatler.

There is also an obvious commercial competitive edge to biomaterials: efficiency. “Raising livestock for traditional leather can take years. The mycelium used to grow Mylo material is grown by expert mushroom farmers in indoor vertical farming facilities with 100 per cent renewable energy in under two weeks,” says Widmaier. “The process of creating other plant-based leathers, like grape leather, in many instances can take four to five weeks from start to finish.”

 

Experiments in leather alternatives are definitely on the rise, from people testing the limits of agricultural waste from plants including pineapple, apple and cacti. Piñatex—created by London-based Ananas Anam—transforms waste pineapple leaves from farms in the Philippines into a biodegradable textile with equivalent performance to leather, using mechanical processes that minimise environmental impact.

It all started when Dr Carmen Hijosa, the company’s founder and chief creative and innovation officer, learnt about the Philippine national garment barong tagalog which is made from piña, a traditional Philippine fibre made from pineapple leaves. Over a decade of research, she developed the fibre into a leather-like material. Since its commercial launch in 2015, Piñatex has been used by fashion brands such as Hugo Boss, H&M, Nike and Chinese haute couturier Guo Pei, and more than 500 manufacturers.

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There is also a massive ethical and social impact. Compared to lab-grown alternatives, “the big difference is that a plant-based material allows for employment and additional income to farming communities,” says Hijosa in a video chat. “At the moment, we are working with eight cooperatives [which benefit more than 500 families] only in the Philippines; some of them are with indigenous people, and there is quite a good gender balance, which is also very important.” She adds there is also a plan to manufacture the product in the country, making it an example of a circular economy.

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The big difference is that a plant-based material allows for employment and additional income to farming communities.
Dr Carmen Hijosa

Some initiatives come from a desire to improve the world. “What if our clothes were made from a natural material that didn’t create microplastics, but rather degraded like a tree leaf? What if fashion could go to the other side of the column and become a force for good?” asks Mark Herrema, CEO of Newlight Technologies, which is behind carbon-negative material AirCarbon. The California-based company has spent more than a decade developing the biomaterial made from PHB (polyhydroxybutyrate), a naturally occuring substance that exists in almost all life forms.

AirCarbon can be used as an alternative to plastic and leather, and is certified carbon-negative by the SCS Global Services in California and Carbon Trust in London, which use international carbon accounting standards to carry out their calculations. “When [AirCarbon] is made in nature, it is a net carbon-negative process, resulting in a net reduction in carbon in the air,” Herrema explains. “It took us many years to replicate this process, but today we use renewable power, air, saltwater and naturally occurring microorganisms, and by doing so, we are able to generate a similar impact, creating a carbon-negative material that is made by life.”

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In other words, the manufacturing process captures more greenhouse gas emissions than it releases, resulting in a reduction of carbon in the air at its end-of-life cycle. The company has launched its own fashion brand, Covalent, to test carbon-negative fashion, starting with eyewear and leather accessories that come with an IBM-supported blockchain tracking system to count the carbon footprint on a product-specific basis. Last year marked Newlight’s first full year of continuous deliveries through the US, Canada and Europe of AirCarbon products from Eagle 3, the first commercial-scale AirCarbon factory. The company has attracted key players in the apparel industry; Nike is expected to release carbon-negative sneakers using AirCarbon in the coming months.

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Asia Rising

There is definite consumer curiosity: 2021 saw a 178 per cent jump in global page views for “vegan leather”, according to global fashion search platform Lyst’s yearly Conscious Fashion Report. And a report by Bangalore-based tech solutions company Infinitum Global released in 2021 predicts the market for vegan leather will reach US$89 billion by 2025; it cites the growing awareness of animal welfare as the major reason for the growth, specifically in Asia-Pacific.

While North America and Europe are currently the two largest markets for vegan leather, APAC is likely to catch up, owing to rapid growth in markets such as China, India, Japan and South Korea. HKRITA’s Yao also believes this is likely. “In Asia, the populations of China and India already account for a large portion of the demand for clothing,” she says. “As the economies and education level grow, and awareness of sustainability rises in both countries— plus the influence of cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo and Seoul on global fashion trends—Asia will be the driving force in the global consumer market in the next decade.”

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Closer to home, Tocco Toscano, a 30-something- year-old Singapore-based leather goods label, launched Singapore’s first apple leather bag and accessories collection in January, following anupcycling project in collaboration with Singapore Airlines. “We’ve been constantly trying to figure out ways to become more sustainable,” says Joseph Lor, the brand’s CEO. “The leather business has been very old and traditional. We should always innovate and look for the next best thing, not only with consideration for the environment, but also [by asking] ‘What do people want to see next?’”

While the brand’s apple leather range has proven popular with younger, online shoppers attracted to the idea of more sustainable products, he believes older consumers are less concerned about environmental impact, and focus only on an item’s design and durability. “I would say that we’re still quite behind countries like the US or the European countries in terms of being more conscious of reducing our carbon footprint,” says Lor. “But I think we’re coming up. We’re all trying to achieve this objective of simplicity, pursuing sales through providing customers with good-quality products, but also being a bit more conscious about the environment in general.”

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The Path To Mass Adoption

Due to the source materials used in many leather alternatives, Asia is something of a hub for the industry, and international interest is on the rise. In 2021, Piñatex received new support from Dole: the largest producer of fruit and vegetables in the world will collect leftover pineapple plant leaves from its Philippine plantations and send them to Ananas Anam. “We are upscaling all the time. In a year’s time or [so], we will have a fully integrated plan to develop everything in the region.” She refers to establishing a viable supply chain—from initial sampling, training farmers, building machines and manufacturing to exporting Piñatex to other markets; the goal is “to be as circular as we can”.

While all biotechnology and textile startups are in need of funding, they also need the support of established brands. Hijosa says, “Even if we were the most sustainable plant-based material commercially available at scale, we need these clients to give us the volume to upscale. It really works well for us, and it works well for them, because everybody is looking for alternative, more transparent, more humane processes of developing materials in the market.”

 

Malai, a startup based in the southern Indian state of Kerala, is developing biocomposite substitutes to leather using sustainable bacterial cellulose grown on waste from the coconut processing industry. Working with mostly smaller independent and ethical fashion brands around the world as well as designing bags under Malai Studio, co-founder Zuzana Gombosova admits the challenge of upscaling as more startups compete in the relatively new leather alternative market.

“The process of material development itself takes many years. We don’t offer a product to our consumers that is perfect and I think this is what most consumers don’t understand — we are in the process of developing something we think can provide a much better solution than leather (given the problems associated with its manufacturing),” Gombosova says. “However this process takes time; and it’s not only us experimenting, it’s also our clients and consumers who are and are taking risks. It’s always good and encouraging to encounter clients that have an understanding for the stage at which we are.” Hijosa recognises the power of partnering with brands as well: “they are the platforms and we need to upscale.”

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Upscaling has wider benefits, too. “Scaling a process actually often helps achieve a lower environmental impact due to the efficiencies that come with it: the development process is optimised, waste is reduced, processing time is reduced, water and chemistry get recycled,” says Widmaier, adding that Bolt Threads is are developing a supply chain that can produce millions of square feet of consistent-quality Mylo leather. “Maintaining an aesthetically pleasing and high-performance material without the negative environmental impact of animal-derived leather is the goal.”

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Making Natural Leather More Sustainable

None of this is to say leather is all bad. It is a byproduct of cattle farming, so some would argue it is wasteful not to make use of the hides. “We need to use it because otherwise they will burn it or bury it and that’s a terrible thing,” says Hijosa. “Leather is a good product—if you think of it as a waste product and if it is well produced.”

What’s more, traditional leather can be produced sustainably, and some major fashion houses are actively looking into this approach. Given that 90 per cent of its products involve leather, Mulberry believes farming can offer the solution to the problem it creates through “a hyper-local, hyper-transparent ‘farm to finished product’ supply chain”, according to its Made To Last Manifesto. The house is only working with trusted suppliers, including members of the Scottish Leather Group—whose grass- fed beef and dairy farms operate with net-zero CO2 emissions.

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Leather tanning is another environmental concern: currently, based on a study by hazardous waste best-practice organisation Fitreach, an estimated 80 to 90 per cent of leather is treated with chromium, a toxic chemical that can pollute waterways if not disposed of properly, and that can also harm the health of workers who use it. But Mulberry is only working with tanneries approved by the Leather Working Group (LWG), a globally recognised non-profit organisation representing responsible leather sourcing.

Meanwhile, in 2017, leather goods label Furla launched a bag produced with vegetable tanning, an ancient, traditional manufacturing treatment that relies on plant-based such as chestnut wood. The brand continues its exploration with sustainable leather goods with Re-Candy, a bag made of recycled plastic and produced by an Italian company powered exclusively by electrical energy from certified renewable sources which has been a commercial success.

“Sustainability at a 360 level will be a central topic for us – this includes human well-being and safety as well as themes like comfort and product durability, the recycling of materials and 3-D Design,” introduces Giovanna Furlanetto, president of the brand. She also adds: “More efforts should be made also behind the scenes by ensuring a sustainable production process and a production environment for the employees.” 

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Similarly, Chloé has been a member of the Leather Working Group since 2017 and has made its environmental efforts transparent and open for seasons. According to the brand’s chief sustainability officer Aude Verge, shoes are considered as a very challenging product category to find substitute materials for due to its complexity and technical requirement. The house introduces Nama sneakers one product that has strived for decarbonisation featuring “forty per cent recycled materials, leather from Leather Working Group certified tanneries and utilises water-based glue for the sole assembly.” And the house is researching materials to replace leather for bags, with one alternative leather model expected to be released by the end of 2023.

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There is also research by vegan advocacy groups such as Circumfauna that argues it would be better for the world if the hides—even as a byproduct of the meat industry—were tossed to rot in a landfill rather than processed into shoes and handbags, based on calculations of carbon emissions from both processes. Of course, filling landfills comes with its own problems. Professor Christina WY Wong from the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University who has been looking into the apparel supply chain integration for years, says: “Whenever there is a production process in place, whenever there is something that needs new materials, then we cannot say that is completely sustainable. I don’t buy into the idea of carbon neutrality [achieving a net carbon footprint of zero], because it means that they [businesses] are simply offsetting what they’re doing.”

In her view, companies need to look for ways to reduce carbon emission in each process in the supply chain, rather than achieve carbon neutrality by paying to offset them. She adds that it is essential that companies creating greener leather alternatives have transparent and traceable supply chains; it’s not only a matter of using a natural source material, but also of revealing the energy required and carbon emitted by the manufacturing process.

What is most sustainable is what we are already using. Leather items can be used for many years—they’re durable and have their own good qualities. How we use them is what’s causing problems.
Professor Christina Wong

Those in the business understand this, too. Gombosova, the co-founder of Malai, believes consumers have become more aware of the “nasties” of the leather-making industry but a product’s durability and performance still come first. “In many cases, we have materials that are somehow ‘less bad’ rather than truly a better solution to the existing problem,” she says. “It’s important to explain to consumers to what extent that the material really is biodegradable and chemical-free, and what can be done with its post-consumption state— this is exactly where durability comes into picture.”

 



Closing The Loop

Perhaps the greatest change consumers can make to limit the negative effects of leather is to adopt a “buy less, use less, own less” ethos. While it could take years for the fashion industry to deliver on its commitment, the influence of the market’s need could be more efficient than we give it credit for. As Wong puts it: “What is most sustainable is what we are already using. Leather items can be used for many years—they’re durable and have their own good qualities. How we use them is what’s causing problems.” As with the shift to fur-free fashion, it’s likely people will make more mindful decisions when it comes to leather, and buy better. “If I only need three items for a whole season, why would I need five pieces?” says Yao. “As people’s mentality starts to change, it’s natural that their approach to buying leather will become more sustainable.”


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