Leather Alternatives – The Good, The Bad & The Fungi

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The leather debate has been ongoing for many years now. Although it is a durable, long lasting material which has been used for thousands of years, there is no denying it comes with its environmental and ethical complexities and we need to make way for some animal-free, sustainable alternatives. Over the years we have seen numerous leather alternatives crop up in its many forms, from the more widely known types such as PVC leather, or the lesser known animal-free leather innovations that are grown in labs and made from mushrooms. Many of these are still in the works to becoming more durable and higher quality materials, but we are seeing more and more brands ditch animal based products for a newer, more promising, sustainable and ethical option.

Here is a list of just a few animal-free leather alternatives that have become popular over the years, and what you need to know about each of them.

PVC Leather

Otherwise known as ‘pleather’ (plastic + leather), is a common animal-free leather alternative on the market, especially on the highstreet, most likely due to its inexpensive price-point. However, the price we pay for this material is much bigger than we think.

Pleather is a textile created from polyvinyl chloride, which is made by a chemical reaction between chlorine, carbon, and ethylene, and the production of PVC leather requires large amounts of resources, as well as causing the release of other harmful chemicals into the environment which has hugely damaging effects on our planet, workers’ health and public health. PVC leather will also not biodegrade, so garments made from this material will most likely end up in landfill at the end of its lifecycle, contributing to our already severe fashion waste problem.


Piñatex is a leather-like material that is derived from the left over leaf parts of pineapple plants. The leaves are considered a waste product of the already existing pineapple harvest, which would otherwise be left to rot or be burned. Instead Ananas Anam, who produce Piñatex, use this waste to create a lightweight, versatile material that is easy to care for. It is easy cut, stitched, embroidered, embossed and printed on so can be used in a myriad of ways and is currently one of the most popular types of animal-free leather. However, due to the outer coating added to the material, Piñatex is not fully biodegradable as of yet, although this will hopefully change in the near future.


A leather-like material made from mycelium, which is essentially a mass of cells on the underground root structure of mushrooms. This is grown in bulk with nutrients to form a 3D network of the cells. These are then compressed to form a 2D material and then tanned and dyed to form the final product, Mylo. The remaining substrate is then composted meaning there is no waste from the production of Mylo, and it takes just days to produce.

There is a lot more control over the production of Mylo, meaning properties such as thickness and shape can be changed depending on the use of the material. The material is strong and durable, as well as fully biodegradable and non-toxic. And has been utilised by brands such as Stella McCartney and Kering for their products.


Cactus leather, otherwise known as Desserto, is made from nopal cactus leaves to create a sustainable and believable leather alternative. It is made by harvesting the cactus leaves twice a year, and only using the mature pads, meaning the plant will not be harmed and will continue to grow. The leaves are then cleaned, smashed into smaller pieces and left out in the sun to dry for a few days. A liquid bio-resin is used on the natural material to create the cactus leather, and the current manufacturer does use polyurethane in the resin formula, however it is also bio-based.

Growing the cactus plants requires very little water or pesticides and is a fast growing plant. There is also little waste made from the production of cactus leather, and any waste made is sold to make products such as animal feed and health supplements.

Cork Leather

A material that has sky rocketed over that past few years has definitely been cork leather, and for good reason. The production of cork leather is very straightforward – the outer section of bark from a cork oak tree is harvested and left to dry for 6 months, and then boiled, flattened and moulded to create a water resistant, durable and recyclable material. It doesn’t require any tanning or additives, meaning it is biodegradable. However, manufacturers may add toxic dye or fabric treatment which could effect this.

The cork oak trees are not harmed when the bark is harvested from them, and have a lifespan of around 300 years making it a renewable source. The production of cork leather also helps prevent the desertification of cork oak forests in Portugal, a place where many endangered species call home. No wonder so many brands are embracing this sustainable alternative.

There are plenty more animal-free leather alternatives being innovated across the globe, all in various stages of development, and all working towards a textile industry that requires less waste (and even reduces waste from other industries), less toxic chemicals, less land and water use and less suffering overall.

It should also be said the production of textiles is not a black and white matter, they all come with their impacts and complexities and the information is constantly changing. But as the work continues to create a sustainable fashion industry, this is certainly an exciting change to keep an eye on.


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