Leather substitutes are used to make an impressive range of apparel and accessories, anything from clothing, shoes, wallets, accessories, upholstery. The demand for nonleather accessories, like nonleather wallets and fashion accessories, has made way for impressive innovations in materials and technique, and now vegan leathers include paper, pineapple and even kelp—yes, you read that right!
Among these exotic sounding leather alternatives, there are fabrics for every type of person: the fashionista, the artsy, the experimental, and the more traditional types. If you fall into the latter category, you might enjoy an alternative that’s already a classic. More on that later.
Now, to help you choose the best nonleather wallet, bag or accessory for your needs, we are taking a look at how these leather alternatives compare and what are the main advantages and concerns surrounding them.
All Nonleathers Were NOT Created Equal
Cotton and waxed fabrics are among the most used alternatives to leather. Unfortunately, they're also among the most problematic. Concerns with the cotton industry have long been known: the generalized use of pesticides, the chemicals used in production, like bleaching agents and toxic paints. The recycling of cotton and fabrics is gaining momentum, but it is still insufficient to prevent old clothes from taking up more and more space in landfills, so that's another environmental issue to address. But with cotton, there are many more environmental concerns, like the many resources it depletes while growing (water, soil) and ultimately putting ecological balance in jeopardy.
Cotton takes a toll
- Cotton is the most pesticide intensive crop in the world.
- Cotton takes up agricultural land needed by locals to grow food.
- Herbicides used to aid mechanical harvesting remain in the fabric and are released through the years.
- Growing enough cotton for a t-shirt requires 257 gallons (972 liters) of water.
- Bleaching and dyeing create toxins that permeate the ecosystem.
- The cotton industry is still largely dependent on cheap labor. Nylon and PolyesterMade from petrochemicals, these synthetics are also non-biodegradable, which makes them double trouble and a truly unsustainable fabric. Nylon manufacture creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The manufacturing of polyester uses large amounts of water for cooling, along with lubricants which can become a source of contamination for water streams. The cherry on top of the cake: both processes are very energy-consuming.
PaperBelieve it or not,
paper is used as an alternative to leather in the production of bags and wallets. Of course, as a "fabric",
paper is as durable as you might expect it to be. Extremely light and thin,
paper fabric has the advantage of being 100% recyclable and using otherwise discarded materials in the productions of new products.
Pinãtex is, as the name indicates, a textile originating in pineapples. Harnessing advanced technologies to create a sustainable and natural textile, this fabric is actually made from pineapple leaf fibers, a by-product of the pineapple harvest. With a very distinctive pattern, and look, Piñatex is probably an alternative for the most adventurous vegans out there.
PolyurethaneFrom an environmental standpoint, polyurethane-based synthetic leathers are worrisome because of the solvents, which can be highly toxic, involved in the production process. There is a wide range of chemistry combinations possible in the production of polyurethane, making its toxicity range wildly. As the majority of brands doesn’t disclose what goes into its processing steps, even when we’re talking about toxic components, it’s best to steer clear
One of the main concerns surrounding PVC is the release of dioxins, a potentially hazardous chemical when burned. Because of its rigid nature, PVC calls for the use of phthalates in order to become pliable and, therefore, usable for clothing and accessories. The level of PVC-based accessories toxicity depends on the phthalate used.
This artificial fiber is made from wood pulp, which makes it sustainable, right? Wrong. Using rayon for clothing is considered one of the culprits for the depletion of the world’s forests. Old growth forests are cleared to produce pulpwood plantations, like eucalyptus. Turning wood pulp into rayon involves the use of hazardous chemicals, such as caustic soda and sulfuric acid.
So, What Should You Use Instead?
Eco-friendly fashion really is the answer in this case. It takes an alternate route, focusing on making things differently:
- Eco-friendly fashion relies on organic raw materials.
- Eco-friendly fashion often uses recycled and/or reused textiles.
- Eco-friendly fashion accessories and garments are made to last, so can keep them longer.
- Eco-friendly fashion relies on fair trade, which means people producing them are fairly paid and have decent working conditions.
Eco-friendly materials are renewable resources that will replenish in a relatively short amount of time. A material is also considered more or less eco-friendly as a function of how much land it takes up to become fully developed and to support its life. The less the extent, the greener the material is. Lastly, quantities of chemicals used in the growth and production processes also determine if a product or material can be considered eco-friendly.
The Case of Cork
Among leather alternatives, cork is queen. Considered a mature alternative to leather, it's also one of the alternatives that best mimics leather in terms of form and function. The production process of cork and cork leather sheets is extremely straightforward.
Cork planks are left outside to dry for up to six months to improve its quality and to get them flat. Cork planks are then treated with heated water and fungicide to remove dirt and to make it flexible and left to cure in a dark cellar for a few more weeks. Heat and pressure are then applied to cork to press it into blocks, which are later sliced in thin sheets that can be transformed in cork leather accessories. Unlike the heavy chemical processing of leather and leather alternatives, cork leather production is practically chemical-free.
What's in it for me?
When you choose cork everybody wins: you get a quality nonleather wallet or accessory, and the environment keeps its balance. To help you wrap your head around the benefits cork can offer, we’ve made a list:
- Cork is the bark of the cork oak, manually removed every nine years without damaging the trunk.
- Cork is water resistant, keeping your valuables safe even in the most adverse weather conditions.
- Cork is wear and tear resistant, highly abrasion resistant and with a high friction coefficient and resistance to impact.
- Cork is incredibly light: half of cork's volume is air, which makes it very light and buoyant.
- Cork is practically impermeable to liquids and gases.
- Cork used in our nonleather wallets and bags is FSC certified, signaling the responsible consumption of forest products.
- Cork is one of the most renewable and eco-friendly resources on the planet
- Every time a cork oak tree is harvested, it absorbs three to five times more CO2 to aid in the bark’s regeneration process.
- Supporting cork is supporting nature: the financial viability of cork and its growers helps provide long-term protection for a unique and fragile ecosystem—the cork oak forest—habitat for rare and endangered species, like the Iberian lynx and home to enormous forest biodiversity.