Vegan fashion is a quickly growing industry making the most out of innovative technologies and manufacturing processes to create more sustainable materials. The vegan leather market is predicted to be worth almost $90 billion by 2025, with more dollars going into research and development to find sustainable alternatives to animal-derived leather.
In this article, I cover some of the most innovative vegan leather materials from companies looking to make a positive impact on the environment.
Established brands, new products
As one of the top brands in sports apparel, I wasn’t surprised to see Nike launch its own sustainable shoe collection. Created in partnership with singer Billie Eilish, the new Air Jordan sneakers are 100% vegan and are made with recycled materials. This isn’t unlike established food brands creating a line of plant-based products to appeal to a different audience.
Stella McCartney’s sustainable sneaker also looks to attract an audience that is increasingly making more eco-friendly purchasing choices.
Established brands launching new products isn’t a novel idea, but these two examples illustrate a growing trend of big brands creating sustainable products that sit alongside their core products.
How sustainable is vegan fashion?
While meat consumption is steadily declining and more consumers are adopting plant-based foods, it’s unlikely that meat products will cease to exist anytime soon. We may reach a point where we no longer need to expand or build new animal farms—but there’s still the issue of animal by-products.
One point that some make for the use of animal-derived leather is that it would have gone to a landfill anyway. In this case, the sustainability argument is more along the lines of using existing materials. That being said, the tanning process for animal-derived leather results in highly toxic chromium salt bathwater that needs to be disposed of.
When it comes to vegan leather, not all products are more sustainable than animal-derived leather. Some vegan leather products contain petroleum-based plastics and are still damaging to the environment since they’re not biodegradable.
Plant-based materials that use plastic alternatives are more environmentally friendly. Companies at the forefront of alternative leather production are also paying close attention to manufacturing to ensure that they’re being sustainable throughout the entire process.
When it comes to vegan fashion, what eco-friendly materials are out there? Here are some innovations to watch out for.
Piñatex® is a vegan textile developed by Ananas Anam. It has been one of the most popular leather alternative materials many companies have turned to for their fashion collections, with brands like Hugo Boss and Votch among them. Piñatex® is made from pineapple leaf fiber that’s collected as an agricultural waste product (if you follow my LinkedIn page, you might have come across an article I shared about Dole partnering with Ananas Anam).
Next, MusKin is a mushroom leather developed by Grado Zero. It’s made from a type of mushroom that is not fit for human consumption but that can result in a material with a suede-like texture. While MusKin can be treated and tanned similar to animal-based leather, Grado Zero uses a completely natural technique to ensure both the product and manufacturing process are eco-friendly. Here’s an interesting fact to note about the mushroom species used to make MusKin: The mushroom feeds on tree trunks, which causes the trees to rot. Using these mushrooms to create vegan leather sounds like a win-win!
VEGEA is a company creating vegan leather made from wine. Technically speaking, it uses grape skins and seeds leftover from wine production, not the actual drink. Still, it’s nice to think about how closely related the products are and how agricultural by-products are being repurposed. Similar to Grado Zero, VEGEA is also emphasizing sustainable production methods, ensuring that it doesn’t use any chemicals harmful to the environment. Last year, H&M announced its new Conscious Collection that uses wine leather.
The last material I want to highlight here is biofabricated leather from Modern Meadow. This is a lab-grown and fully animal-free leather derived from collagen. Their proprietary Bio-AlloyTM technology creates highly durable materials that are rich in colour without any additional wasted dye.
Obstacles the vegan fashion industry faces
One of the biggest challenges companies face is scale. For example, mushroom leather is suitable for smaller fashion collections. There is only 430-530 square feet produced a month, so it’s not enough for mass production.
Another obstacle companies face is accessibility. While biofabricated leather is certainly very promising (and reminds me of cultured meats), it’s still not accessible to the average consumer.
Of course, these are temporary obstacles that many other plant-based industries, such as food, have faced. Both scale and accessibility have improved immensely in the plant-based food industry, so I expect to see a similar trajectory with the vegan fashion and materials industry.
The future of vegan fashion is looking bright
Like the plant-based foods industry, vegan fashion still has to overcome some barriers before it can reach mass production and mainstream appeal. That being said, I’m confident in the growth of this particular sector because of the rapidly advancing technology and science behind plant-based materials.
The vegan leather materials I highlighted above represent just a small fraction of companies that are working towards a more sustainable future. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for this industry!