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Business, The Future Of Sustainable Materials

The Next Generation of Leather Alternatives

The Next Generation of Leather Alternatives

4/21/2021 3:36:00 PM

The Next Generation of Leather Alternatives

From hides derived from fruit to fabrics grown in labs, there have never been more options for shoppers and retailers alike in search of more sustainable solutions.

, originally developed by Illinois-based material innovations company Natural Fiber Welding, under the name "Mirum." The technology binds together bio-ingredients like vegetable oil and natural rubber to create a 100% natural, plant-based "leather" material. 

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While Allbirds' Plant Leather won't hit shelves until December 2021, the company is hopeful the fabrication has legs beyond its own headquarters. Claudia Richardson, Allbirds' senior manager of material innovation, says that Plant Leather emits up to 17 times less carbon than synthetic leather, and has 40 times less carbon impact than animal leather: "That's a potential of a 95% reduction in the end products' carbon impact." 

Another brand that has worked to develop its own tech-derived leather alternative in-house isvon Holzhausen, the handbag label that comes courtesy of former car designer Vicki von Holzhausen. When it first launched in 2017, von Holzhausen did so only using leather that was a byproduct of the food industry, so that no animal was used only for its hide. A year later, it introduced an exclusive, animal-free material called "Technik-Leather," that von Holzhausen says helps divert plastic from landfills.

To develop Technik, von Holzhausen created a microfiber layer from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic water bottles that mimics the supple quality of animal leather. Technik's outer layer — which is water-, stain- and scratch-resistant — is then made using a 99% waste-free process in which every material used is recycled, even the water.

With a new alternative material called Banbü, von Holzhausen is venturing into the plant-based realm with a proprietary fiber made from bamboo. Bamboo itself is naturally regenerative: Not only is it the fastest-growing plant on earth, but it can also be harvested without destroying its root systems and needs relatively little water to grow. In an effort to share innovation, von Holzhausen offers its Technik and Banbü to large-scale industries — like fashion brands, automotive companies and luxury watchmakers — that traditionally use leather in its products.

Leather alternatives are also taking the form of historically lo-fi avenues, as withDeadwood, which crafts upcycled leather goods out of recycled materials primarily sourced from furniture manufacturers, tanneries and textile waste hubs.When co-founders Carl Ollson and Felix von Bahder first decided to venture into business together in 2012, their approach wasn't initially eco-minded. "We realized there were a lot of ugly leather jackets lying around," says von Bahder, laughing. The more they worked with upcycled leather, the more they came face to face with insurmountable leather waste: "It's thousands of tons of perfectly good leather that's thrown in piles and set on fire, all across the globe where leather products are being made. That's what took Deadwood from just being a hobby to a calling."

Deadwood's recyclable leather jackets and pants, sourced from furniture manufacturers, tanneries and textile waste hubs.Photo: Courtesy of DeadwoodIn the nine years since they launched Deadwood, Ollson and von Bahder have grown well-acquainted with some of fashion's most systemic challenges, including waste. There's also a widespread lack of innovation that may make the industry less inclined to make top-to-bottom changes — including, say, phasing out animal hide — in the interest of a less destructive supply chain.

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"Every industry is faced with challenges," says von Bahder. "In fashion, it's always been about finding the next cool thing. But now, all of a sudden, we have to do real work and real research, and that, I think, takes some getting used to for many in the industry."

Bolt Threads is keenly aware of this hesitancy, which is why it's in the business of partnerships with those same companies that could stand to bring leather alternatives to market."What we've learned is that fashion brands don't have a deep history of innovation driving the product,'" Widmaier says. "I can point you to a long chain of electronics companies that are in their sixth generation, but that a new startup killed. It doesn't happen that way in fashion. And because of that, there's a lack of the deep scientific understanding that's required to actually bring true innovation to markets."

Leather alternatives aren't a silver-bullet solve, however. Developments like Mylo or Plant Leather or Technik require real trial and error, and as Widmaier notes, "that's measured in decades, usually." Fashion may not have decades to come around: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an intergovernmental body of the United Nations, has stated that to avoid climate catastrophe,

global emissions must be halved by 2030.von Holzhausen, for one, believes there will be a tipping point once more traditional companies start to offer non-leather options within their product lines. "It will parallel what we're currently seeing in the meat industry, with meat alternatives showing up everywhere from to fast-food restaurants to fine dining," she says.

Maybe, just maybe, that's something we can be optimistic about. Read more: »

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