MILAN — Animal-free leather is an increasingly prevalent reality as many brands rush to convert part of their leather goods and footwear production to alternative materials that are plant- and bio-based — coming from fungi, as well as made of textiles treated to look like real leather.
Yet even if experts believe the trend is unlikely to wane in the wake of growing awareness of the plastic crisis, increasing veganism, and investors pouring resources into start-ups and suppliers developing such materials, one question remains: Are they really more sustainable?
Luxury powerhouses with expertise in leather goods are backing these alternative options — tapping into faux leather by way of one-off capsule collections, introducing alternative materials developed in-house and inking long-term supply deals — in their quest for supposedly greener options.
Earlier this year, Gucci unveiled an innovative animal-free material called Demetra, developed after two years of in-house research, which contains upward of 77 percent plant-based raw materials made of viscose and a wood pulp compound from sustainably managed forest sources, as well as bio-based polyurethane from renewable sources.
“Demetra offers our industry an easily scalable, alternative choice and a more sustainable material that also answers the needs of animal-free solutions,” said Marco Bizzarri, president and chief executive officer of Gucci. The company has introduced three sneaker models crafted from the new material, for which it has filed patent and trademark applications.
Meanwhile, Hermès forged a partnership with California-based start-up MycoWorks, which patented the Sylvania fungi-derived material. Using biotechnology to grow made-to-order mycelium compounds that mimic animal leather, MycoWorks will supply the material to the French luxury house to be used for its Victoria travel bag, alongside elements of canvas and calfskin, which is due to drop by the end of 2021.
MycoWorks was founded in 2013 and closed two rounds of financing last year, amassing $62 million in funding. Incidentally, former Hermès CEO Patrick Thomas, who stepped down in 2014 and is no longer involved with the company, recently joined the board of the U.S.-based material enterprise, signaling the growing potential of such suppliers.
An early adopter and undisputed sustainability advocate, Stella McCartney started working with Bolt Threads — a biotech company based in the San Francisco area — in 2017 when she plied Mylo, a leathery fabric made from the root system of fungi, into a prototype of the brand’s signature Falabella handbag. She renewed her partnership earlier this year, applying the material to clothing.
The vegan leather industry is estimated to be worth $89.6 billion by 2025, according to Bangalore-based tech solutions company Infinitum Global.
That includes both synthetic substitutes and bio-based alternatives to leather, and the latter group is definitely the one booming. It includes materials such as Piñatex, made of pineapple leaf fibers that would otherwise be discarded; Vegea, made of apple orchard waste and vineyards, and Desserto, crafted from milled cactus leaves, just to name a few.
Piñatex’s creator Ananas Anam sealed deals with Hugo Boss, Nike, H&M and Paul Smith, among others, while Bolt Threads’ Mylo has been adopted by the likes of Adidas and Kering.
Just because it’s vegan, though, doesn’t mean it’s sustainable or biodegradable. Bio-based materials often aren’t rid of synthetics entirely, even if in trace amounts in the form of solvents, coatings or plasticizers. Similarly, even if turning to agricultural waste as feedstock falls within the perimeter of the circular economy, experts are raising counterpoints that creating new materials isn’t always the best solution.
To this end, tanneries in Italy have been vocal about the full circularity of their industry, as real leather is an agro-industrial byproduct and fully organic. Last year industry association Unic lobbied the Italian government to pass a law regulating the use of the term “leather,” which cannot be employed to describe non-animal materials, including vegan leather. A similar regulation was passed under French law in 2010, with the local industry association Conseil National du Cuir claiming that any use of the term “leather” for non-animal materials is inappropriate.
Even if this may not prevent brands and retailers from promoting their creations as faux leather, it certainly represents a deadlock, not unlike the supply shortage of new materials, which have yet to reach the same production scale. For instance, production capacity for mycelium leather-like materials from New York-based innovation firm Ecovative — which has scored $60 million in Series D funding this year — is 100,000 pounds a year, well below optimum levels for mass consumer supply.