Vegan leather alternatives are taking the fashion industry by storm. Could the world of interior design be next?
In my recent article about vegan interior design, I highlighted different areas of concerns as it relates to furnishing a vegan home. In this article I’ll talk about the most obvious animal-derived material (other than fur); leather.
Most of us (including myself) have purchased leather goods in the past without thinking much about it, whether it be for fashion or the home.
The common belief is that leather is made from the skin of cows that are slaughtered for human consumption. This actually couldn’t be further from the truth. Leather isn’t a byproduct, but actually the most important coproduct of the meat industry. Leather is a large and profitable industry in its own right. Depending on the source it is estimated that there are 1 – 3 billion animals killed solely for their skin every single year. This is in addition to the staggering 70 billion (excluding fish and seafood) that are slaughtered for meat [Source: faunalytics].
What animal does leather come from?
Leather is made from cows, sheep, lambs, goats and pigs, but also from cats and dogs. The sheer thought of possibly owning something made of dog leather or cat leather made the hair in my neck stand up.
On second thought, I realized how hypocritical this actually is, as it really shouldn’t matter which animal the skin derives from. Although I may feel a stronger connection to a dog, cat or horse, I don’t want any animal tortured and killed for my handbag or chair. Essentially, this is why I transitioned to a vegan diet in the first place.
Most of the leather in circulation worldwide is produced in China, Bangladesh and India (in certain states), where there are hardly any regulations with regards to the leather source and the treatment of the workers, let alone the animals. This means that in most cases, we simply don’t know what type of leather a leather handbag, leather gloves or a leather chair is really made of.
On the other hand, species like seals, zebras, kangaroos, elephants and snakes are also hunted and killed for their skins. Some exotic animals, such as crocodiles are often factory-farmed for their skin.
Whilst I’ll spare you the details of the atrocities that take place in the leather industry as it relates to animal welfare, I think it is also important to mention the impact of the leather production on our planet and our own health and wellbeing.
The truth about the leather tanning process and leather industry pollution
To keep the animal skin from biodegrading, it is treated with a variety of chemical substances. This process is known as tanning.
Up until the late 19th century, leatherworkers used to air- or salt-dry animal skins and then use vegetable tannins or oils to turn the animal hides into leather.
Nowadays, however, most leather tanning uses highly toxic substances, including chromium and arsenic. These substances are very harmful to the environment and humans. Tannery workers are at a 20 – 30% higher risk of lung cancer from being exposed to so many toxins on a daily basis. A study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the incidence of leukemia among residents in an area near one tannery in Kentucky was five times the U.S. average [Source: Peta].
Essentially, these toxins also affect our own health. We not only absorb them through our skin (e.g. sitting on a leather sofa), but they also impact our indoor air quality, because the toxins off-gas into our home.
In short, the more I learned about the leather industry, the more it became clear that I no longer want to support an industry that is so detrimental to animals, the planet and humans.
Whilst I’m ready to turn my back on leather that derives from animals, I won’t deny that I love the luxurious look of leather. This is why I made finding vegan leather alternatives a priority. Cruelty-free leathers that look and feel like traditional leather and offer the same durability as animal-derived leathers.
What are vegan leather alternatives made out of?
Until quite recently, the only alternative to real leather was so called faux leather or pleather, which is either made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or PU (polyurethane), so basically plastic. Aside from the fact that I never liked the look and feel of faux leather, these petroleum-based materials aren’t sustainable nor healthy either. After all, veganism isn’t ‘just’ about animal welfare, but also about sustainability and health.
Let’s take a closer look at some natural leather-like materials
During my research for materials like leather, I came across some interesting pioneering companies that are in the process of developing innovative plant-based leathers and textiles disrupting the world of fashion and hopefully, soon enough the world of interior design.
Many sustainable leathers fall into the category of so-called fruit leathers. As the name indicates they’re made of fruits or rather fruit waste and byproducts of the food industry (e.g. the making of juices). This makes them sustainable on all accounts and healthy (though I don’t recommend nibbling on your handbag or your chair 😉
Fruit leathers are amongst the most popular and fastest growing vegan leather alternatives globally.
Apple fruit leathers have been around for a few years already. Up until now this vegan material was mostly used for handbags and fashion accessories.
However, there are a handful of progressive furniture brands that have launched sofas and armchairs covered in apple leather, such as the high-end Italian furniture manufacturer Cassina. They launched a vegan sofa collection designed by the famous French designer Philippe Starck using a leather alternative made from apple skin and PU (polyurethane), making them vegan, but not entirely sustainable. [Source: Dezeen]
Another interesting vegan leather-like material, I came across is pineapple leather. The B-Corp certified company Ananas Anam believes that ethics and business can be combined successfully. They produce a leather fabric called Piñatex for a wide range of industries.
It is made of the fibre of the waste leaves of the pineapple plant. Since this pineapple leather is created from a byproduct collected after the pineapple harvest, it requires no additional resources to produce. The entire supply chain is designed to have the lowest possible environmental impact.
Other fruit leathers
The possibilities seem endless when it comes to fruit leathers. During my research I’ve also come across mango leather, orange leather and grape leather. As I continue my research, I shall determine the best fruit leathers for my future interior design projects.
Other plant-based leathers
In addition to the variety of fruit-leathers, there are also many other natural fibers and plants that can be turned into beautiful vegan leathers.
Mycelium leather aka mushroom leather
Mycelium leather promises to become one of the leading sustainable vegan leather alternatives, because its production is scalable. Mushrooms are grown vertically and therefore take up little space. The US based company Bolt Threads for example is heavily investing into a mycelium leather called Mylo. Unfortunately, they’re currently only working with a select few fashion brands exclusively, such as Stella McCartney, who recently launched the world’s first Mylo garments created from vegan mushroom leather. Hopefully, in future they and/ or other mushroom leather manufacturers will launch mushroom leather sold by the linear meter to serve the furniture and interior design industry.
Cactus leather actus
Yet another innovative company out of Mexico called Desserto is producing a leather-like material from cactuses. The advantage of cactus leather is that cactus plants need very little water and they only need to pick the ‘leaves’ of the plant, leaving the rest of the plant intact. You’ll already find plenty of ‘leather’ goods on the market made from this leather fabric, such as cactus leather handbags and cactus leather sneakers. This cactus leather manufacturer is Peta-approved and has won multiple awards and certifications, including the Green Product Award, Oeko-Tex and V-Label Vegan.
Cork flooring has grown in popularity in recent years, yet I was surprised to learn that this natural material can also be turned into a leather like material.
Linseed oil leather aka lino leather
Linseed oil is another plant-based material used to make flooring known as linoleum. It is a very affordable floor covering and according to an Eindhoven graduate, who’s currently experimenting with linseed oil, it can also be turned into a material like leather. [Source: Dezeen]
Algae leathers and kelp leathers
This vegan alternative to leather really got my attention. Having visited and lived in the Caribbean for many years spanning across 3 decades, I’ve observed the growing issue with kelp a type of seaweed that grows in coastal areas in recent years. I was therefore excited to read about algae leathers and kelp leathers in particular.
It could represent a huge opportunity to help solve the seaweed problem on Caribbean beaches and simultaneously provide an additional income stream for many Caribbean islands.
As an interior designer I pledge to no longer use any animal skins in my projects
As an interior designer I see it as part of my responsibility to raise awareness around this issue and above all commit to no longer use any type of animal skin for my interior design projects or as fashion designer Stella McCartney so aptly put it: “I like to work with fabrics that don’t bleed.” [Source: Peta | Stella McCartney].
With so many humane vegan leather alternatives, I think it’s high time for change. Let’s veganise our homes and make the world a better place; one vegan leather sofa at a time. Who’s with me?
P.S. Please also read my first article about vegan interior design and what motivated me to launch this series. Stay tuned for more articles about vegan home decor and if you’re interested in vegan interior design for your own home, then please book a call and let’s have a chat.
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