The quest for sustainable leather alternatives
Throughout history, leather has been a popular material for clothes and many other goods. However, the tanning process and use of livestock mean that it has a large environmental footprint, leading consumers and manufacturers alike to seek out alternatives. An article in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society, details how sustainable materials are giving traditional leather a run for its money.
Traditional leather goods are known for their durability, flexibility and attractive finish, with a global market worth billions, writes Associate Editor Craig Bettenhausen. Despite leather's popularity, the modern tanning process uses potentially harmful chemicals and creates a large amount of wastewater. In addition, most hides come from the meat and dairy industries, which have sustainability problems. Leather-like materials, often called vegan leather, are gaining traction among high-end manufacturers, defying the negative perceptions of synthetic "pleather." These leather alternatives are made from an array of base materials, including plants, mushrooms and even fish skin, each with a unique take on sustainable production.
Plant-based materials are currently the most advanced leather mimics because of their straightforward manufacturing process, which combines inexpensive natural fibers and polymers that are rolled into sheets. A company based in Mexico has created a leather made from prickly pear cactus, which is ground into a powder and combined with a biobased polyurethane. Mushroom leather mimics the texture of cowhide leather very well, but production needs to scale up substantially to make an impact. Although not a vegan alternative, fish skin is poised to replace exotic leathers such as snake and alligator skin. Cell-culture leather is also in early development, which could disrupt the traditional leather market even further. Experts are confident that these materials are viable alternatives, and manufacturers plan to scale up their efforts going forward.