Vegan Leather Guide 2: Coated Materials
Let's get juicy: Everything you need to know about apple leather, cactus leather, pineapple leather and co.
The market for leather products is in upheaval - innovations that attempt to replace fossil-based polymers with biogenic and fully biodegradable materials are especially in demand. A large number of established companies, but especially startups, are developing these new innovative materials. The most popular: "plant-based" vegan leather alternatives. In 2021, for example, Karl Lagerfeld, together with Ambre Valletta, launched an accessories collection made of "cactus leather" from the Mexican company Desserto.
But what does plant-based leather actually mean? Are pineapple leather, apple leather and cactus leather really as sustainable as the name suggests? As we have taken a closer look at animal leather and vegan mono-materials in the Vegan Leather Guide Part 1, in this article we will provide you with information about the different types of coated materials. At the very end of the article you will also find an table with the key features of the most popular vegan leathers.
Production: Synthetic leather usually consists of a textile carrier coated with two or more synthetic polymer layers. The carrier materials used are, for instance, polyester, recycled polyester or cotton, which are coated with polyvinyl chloride (PVC, vinyl) or polyurethane (PU). The leather-like surface appearance is imitated by the embossing of a grain structure. Attention: Not every synthetic leather is also automatically vegan – it depends on the colors, adhesives and other raw materials used in the process.
Cross-Section of Synthetic Leather (© Melina Bucher)
Performance: Synthetic leather - also known as "faux leather", "PU leather" or "artificial leather" - is often associated with poor quality. This reputation is mainly due to cheaply produced imitation leather variants of fast fashion companies. However, man-made synthetic leather is almost unrestricted in terms of its quality and properties.
The quality depends on the raw materials used (base material, coating) as well as the processing. Moreover, unlike its animal counterpart, the properties such as water resistance, flexibility and durability can be modified flexibly and even surpass the performance of the animal leather. High-quality synthetic leather is used primarily in the automotive industry for interior trim. Unlike animal leather, synthetic leather offers water resistance, is easy to care for and neither needs to be waxed nor impregnated.
Did you know: even traditional luxury brands use coated leather or synthetic leather as particularly durable materials in their collections - Gucci and Louis Vuitton's famous monogram bags are made of coated faux leather, and Prada's Saffiano leather is a machine-grained and waxed leather.
Sustainability: Synthetic leather has its pros and cons. The extraction of the crude oil for production is intensive in terms of resources. The environmental impact varies as much as the quality of the material: depending on the production country and site, raw materials used and material thickness, the environmental impact differs. However, scientific studies comparing industry standards in the field of synthetic and animal leather show that, on average, the production of synthetic leather consumes significantly less resources than the production of animal leather.
Environmental Impact of Animal Leather vs. Synthetic Leather. The higher the number, the more harmful is a material for the environment. (© Melina Bucher, based on HIGG Material Index)
Disposal: High-quality synthetic leather is characterized in particular by its durability. That being said, it also gives rise to problems when it comes to disposal: The material is very difficult to biodegrade, and recycling is not yet widespread in practice.
Deployment in the fashion industry: A large number of accessories, such as handbags and belts, are made from high-quality synthetic leather. Stella McCartney's luxury designer handbags, for example, are made from a blend of polyester (PL/PES) and polyurethane (PU). The first Melina Bucher collection is also made of the highest quality synthetic leather for reasons of sustainability and the love of animals.
Read more about animal leather and synthetic leather in our detailed article "The 5 most popular myths about animal leather".
Peoples' ever-increasing interest in sustainability regarding fashion is also impacting their relationship with synthetic materials. Since synthetic leather is made from raw oil and its disposal is difficult, consumers are seeking other, vegan alternatives. As a result, several textile developers are trying to replace as much of the crude-oil-based raw materials as possible with plant fibers. Thus, a number of so-called "plant-based" leathers have emerged in recent years.
Management consulting and market research firm Infinium Global Research published a market report regarding the vegan leather market in February 2021. According to the report, the global vegan leather market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 48.1 percent during the forecast period from 2020 to 2026. The report includes profiles of companies such as Pineapple Anam Ltd, Desserto, Bolt Threads Inc and VEGEA SRL, among others.
Beware of Greenwashing: Although manufacturers advertise with terms such as "plant leather", "plant-based" or "apple leather made from apple residues", the materials are in fact only partial of plant origin.
Production: Plant-based vegan leathers are leathers in which fruits, leaves or other plant-based components are industrially processed together with stabilizers in order for the final material to have the visual and tactile characteristics of animal leather.
Similar to synthetic leather, they consist of a base material which is coated with one or multiple layers. This is where the plant-based raw component comes in: in the base material or coating, some of the synthetic raw materials are replaced by plant-based components. So, for example, some synthetic PVC/PU coating can be replaced by agricultural waste products. Such examples are apple leather (AppleSkin), wine leather (VEGEA) or cactus leather (Desserto).
Cross-Section of AppleSkin Apple Leather (© Melina Bucher)
Cross-Section of Desserto Cactus Leather (© Melina Bucher)
In the case of Pinatex on the other hand, the pineapple leather from the manufacturer Ananas Anam, the base material is replaced: plant fibers from pineapple leaves (PALF = Pineapple Leaf Fibre) are coated with PLA (Polylactic Acid) and PU.
Cross-Section of Pinatex Ananas Leather (© Melina Bucher)
Performance: Hybrid leathers offer very similar basic visual and tactile characteristics to those of leather. Thereby, the synthetic components mostly serve as a stabilizer of the bio-based component, or to ensure that the qualitative requirements to which leather is subject can also be met.
Currently, there are hardly any scientifically based studies comparing the mechanical properties based on common parameters in materials science. Initial studies, however, indicate that performance depends in particular on the stability of the base material. In developing our own samples, apple leather and cactus leather could be processed like synthetic leather. Unfortunately, pineapple leather was not so scratch-resistant in previous material tests that it would be suitable for the quality we require for designer handbags. However, for individual applications it works perfectly.
Sustainability: Even though the manufacturers of plant-plastic hybrids advertise the sustainability of their materials, there is little to no scientific data on the environmental impact to date. Desserto has published initial results of an LCA study for its cactus leather, but the survey methodology is not yet publicly available. Therefore, the question of how materials such as apple leather, cactus leather or pineapple leather compare to other leathers cannot be answered up to now.
One advantage of the hybrid material is certainly that some of the fossil raw materials are replaced by agricultural waste. For example, the apple powder of the manufacturer FRUMAT, used for apple leather, is made out of waste from the fruit juice production industry. The fruit content of the apple leather is about 20-30 %, the remaining 70-80 % being PU, polyester, and cotton.
In addition, the young companies often provide information on manufacturing locations and conditions in a more transparent manner than transparent manner than is common in the animal leather industry. Surprisingly, however, the base material in the standard version of the materials is often polyester or polyester-cotton blended fabric, even though the companies advertise that they do not use fossil raw materials.
Disposal: Since the plant-based materials are mixed with synthetic components, biodegradability is not a given. Recyclability has also not yet been addressed, but in principle mixed materials are even more difficult to recycle than pure synthetic materials.
Deployment in the fashion industry:So far, the materials have proven themselves for the use in the production of accessories and can be processed in the same way as animal or synthetic leathers. The German company Nuwaii, for instance, produces bags from Apple Skin and Sylven New York uses the material to make high-quality shoes. Earlier this year, Karl Lagerfeld launched a collection made of cactus leather. Pinatex for example, which is extremely scratch-resistant and has a special surface texture, is used for accessories by Alkeme Atelier.
Ananas Leaf Collection for Pinatex Manufacturing. Ananas Anam is a Certified B-Corp. (© Ananas Anam)
Production: A new, very exciting material is Mirum from the startup Natural Fiber Welding. What makes it special: Natural Fiber Welding is the first company to succeed in developing a 100 % bio-based and plastic-free vegan leather. Like the other materials, Mirum uses a base material - which currently consists of organic cotton. However, for the first time, the coating as well as the adhesives are not synthetic in nature but are made from 100 % plants and other organic ingredients. The process has been patented and promises to eliminate the use of crude oil following the motto "Plants not Plastic".
Cross-Section of Mirum Vegan Leather (© Melina Bucher)
Performance: The manufacturer states that the production of Mirum requires only a fraction of the CO2 emissions and energy of animal and synthetic leather. Furthermore, no water is consumed in the production process. An evaluation of the material in a comprehensive LCA study is still pending. Depending on the color, Mirum consists of different raw materials such as coconut fibers, cork and oils from plants. The raw materials are partly waste materials from other industries; for example, cork from the production of wine stoppers is used.
Sustainability: The manufacturer states that the production of Mirum requires only a fraction of the CO2 emissions and energy of animal and synthetic leather. Furthermore, no water is consumed in the production process. An evaluation of the material in a comprehensive LCA study is still pending. Depending on the color, Mirum consists of different raw materials such as coconut fibers, cork and oils from plants. The raw materials are partly waste materials from other industries; for example, cork from the production of wine stoppers is used.
Mirum has a clear advantage over other vegan leathers as it is made only from natural ingredients. The first versions have already received USDA biobased certification. "Biobased" referring to the fact that only biogenic raw materials are used for the material instead of fossil gas, coal or petroleum for the production. Moreover, no PU coating and no synthetic adhesive are used in the process. This also makes it possible for Mirum to be degraded in the environment by microorganisms and physico-chemical influences.
Disposal: Mirum is "circular by design" – The material was developed for the circular economy. In other words, after Natural Fiber Welding has been used, the material can be separated from the base material again. Subsequently, it can be used to produce new mirum of the same quality. Due to its natural origin, the material can alternatively be composted and returned to nature. A corresponding certification is still pending, so far, the information relates to laboratory tests conducted by the company.
Circular By Design Process of Mirum (© Natural Fiber Welding)
Deployment in the fashion industry: Mirum has so far been tested in pilot projects by Porsche for a car leather seat or for jeans batches at Ralph Lauren. There are currently no products on the market. Up until now, the material has been available in neutral colors. Since, unlike synthetic leathers or plant-synthetic hybrids, it is not dyed with industrial dyes, but the color is created by minerals, further colors are in development.
In the following you can find a thorough comparison of the most talked about vegan leathers based on scientific research. Where scientific research is not yet available, we marked as "no sufficient data available". For the evaluation of performance, we included company information as well as our own experiences with the materials.
Comparison of the most talked about vegan leathers (© Melina Bucher)