Vegan leather isn’t sustainable leather — but it could be

The issues with the conventional leather industry are no great secret — from the carbon footprint and environmental pollution to workers’ rights and animal welfare. The fashion industry is urgently looking for an alternative.

“Vegan leather,” however, is largely a “marketing disaster,” to use Mother of Pearl creative director Amy Powney’s turn of phrase. Powney told Vogue, “Brands and suppliers are jumping on this term to associate with an ethical movement, which instantly makes the consumer feel good. But if you are buying faux leather, you need to consider [that] you are buying plastic.”

Faux leather had a glow-up in the 2010s when the category got rebranded to “vegan leather.” Pleather carries the connotation of a cheap imitator. The vegan term tugs at the heartstrings as “cruelty-free.” 

But no matter the name, pleather or vegan leather: plastic is neither a sustainable nor animal-friendly alternative to conventional leather. 

What is faux leather made out of? 

Synthetic vegan leather is made from petroleum-based plastics, most commonly: polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (vinyl or PVC).

Like all plastics, PU and PVC are derived from petroleum or natural gas. Extracting fossil fuels to manufacture synthetic vegan leather comes at the environmental and human cost of drilling, pumping, transporting, and processing finite fossil inputs. In particular, the carbon footprint associated with driving chemical processes that produce & manufacture plastics constitutes significant impacts — including emissions presently not accounted for by LCAs.

Not only do PU and PVC cause tremendous harm on the production side, but at the end of their lives, these materials will eventually: 

  • get dumped in a landfill where they’ll leach harmful chemicals for decades; 
  • be incinerated, releasing carbon into the atmosphere; 
  • and/or disintegrate into microplastic pollution that ends up in our oceans, drinking water, and soils. 

What they cannot do is contribute nutrients back to the earth as they break down. Because so-called “vegan” leather-like materials are typically complex (composites), they are not recyclable in any substantial way.  

It’s true that “vegan leather” is not made from animal hides, but these products do considerable damage to wild animals in the ecosystems that are destroyed through fossil fuel extraction, pleather production, and plastic waste. From sea otters covered in spilled oil to whales with bellies full of microplastics, the upstream and downstream effects of vegan leather are hardly cruelty-free and are certainly not sustainable. 

Enter plant-based leather.

Sustainable fashion innovators realized the need for non-animal leather that is not made from fossil fuels. A sustainable alternative must be made of renewable materials that, at the end of the product’s life, will not pollute the ecosystems that animals (and people) depend on. 

Today, grape skins, cactus, pineapple fiber, apples, mushrooms (mycelium), and other biomass are all being used to create the next generation of “vegan” materials. Over the past ten years, the category of plant-based leathers has swelled to include more than twenty companies. 

The shift to using environmentally friendly, natural materials is well-intentioned. But in order to compete with plastic or animal leather, plant-based leather must meet designers’ aesthetic and functionality needs, and this is where the trouble begins.

pleather market

Is plant-based leather a sustainable option? 

So far, nearly every plant-based leather on the market uses some plastic resin, glue, or coating as a shortcut to meet the performance threshold. The amount of “plant” in plant-based leather is wide-ranging. Depending on the brand, it may be as much as 80 or as little as 30 percent

Since nearly every plant-based leather on the market uses some amount of plastic, producing these products typically involves solvents, plasticizers, or other processing chemicals. A recent study found numerous plant-based leathers contain harmful chemicals that have been banned in other applications. 

Using plant inputs (especially agricultural by-products and food waste) can make the upstream supply chain more climate-friendly and environmentally responsible. However, it’s not clear that plant-plastic hybrids are any more sustainable than pleather once you take into account the end-of-life impacts. 

Plant-plastic hybrid leathers can’t be recycled or composted.

As with cotton-polyester blends, mixing natural materials with plastic results in an end-product that is neither recyclable nor compostable. This is why plant-plastic hybrids are the worst of both worlds. They can’t be recycled like fully plastic materials, and they can’t be mulched or composted like fully natural materials. These hybrids can only be incinerated or landfilled. Unfortunately, there is presently very little transparency about this. 

Brands often market plant-plastic hybrids as partially biodegradable. Sustainability experts Dr. Ashley Holding and Paula Lorenz write, “There is no such thing as a material being partly biodegradable: either the whole material is biodegradable, or it isn’t.” Commercial composters can’t use materials that leave plastic residue in their compost.

Neither pleather nor plant-plastic hybrids have the same durability and mechanical strength as conventional leather. NFW CEO Dr. Luke Haverhals explains, “Have you ever noticed how the coatings on synthetic plastic leather-like materials tend to ‘flake’ off with time? This problem is often exacerbated with plastic-natural hybrid materials since the adhesion between natural materials and plastics are often less because of reduced chemical compatibility.” This means, ultimately, even more of these non-recyclable products will need to be burned or landfilled. 

With the current selection of “plant-based” leathers, we arrive at the same “marketing disaster” as “vegan leather” all over again: another set of disingenuous ethical claims.

For all brands, manufacturers, and designers committed to sustainable fashion, the industry standard for “plant-based leather” must be 100 percent biobased, or in other words, plastic-free. 

What is MIRUM® and why is it unique?

MIRUM is engineered without petrochemical inputs. Because MIRUM can be engineered from a variety of abundant natural ingredients that have unique characteristics, MIRUM is more tunable and customizable than conventional materials. MIRUM outperforms on performance metrics ranging from mechanical to chemical properties (e.g., toughness while being water-resistant). Since MIRUM is 100 percent plastic-free and recyclable, MIRUM is not detrimental to the environment as plant-plastic leathers are.

MIRUM is a plant-based leather that actually lives up to the sustainability principles designers and consumers care about, unlike the plant-plastic hybrids or “vegan” pleather.

MIRUM debuted at Paris Fashion Week in 2019 in partnership with FELDER FELDER.

Daniela Felder said, “MIRUM is exciting to us because it’s the ultimate playground. The material is infinitely tunable to our aesthetic, can perform in a variety of conditions, and has a simply beautiful look and feel.”  

Natural Fiber Welding founder Luke Haverhals explains, “MIRUM has the lowest resource and carbon footprint and the lowest ecological impact in its category. It’s unique in that it uses zero plastic: no PU, no PVC, no EVA, no petrochemicals.” 

MIRUM is a plant-based composite material made from both virgin and recycled plant fiber. Whenever possible, NFW sources by-products, like cork powder or coconut husks, from existing agricultural industries to further minimize MIRUM’s ecological impact. 

While many plant-based leathers are made with intensive chemical processes, MIRUM is produced through mechanical compression. And instead of relying on PU coatings, NFW has developed patented techniques to create the luxury look and feel that people have come to expect. 

At the end of a product’s life, MIRUM can be recycled into new MIRUM. Even scraps of MIRUM from the cutting process can become feedstock for the next batch of MIRUM production. This is truly revolutionary.

Products that don’t get recycled can be ground up and used as a soil additive. The bottom line: at the end of its life, MIRUM does not pollute the environment because it is literally sourced from natural nutrients.

Fundamentally, MIRUM production is a closed-loop system that eliminates waste. This plant-based leather enables circular fashion in a way that no other leather or leather-alternative product can. 

MIRUM is plant-based leather without compromise.

A sustainable product is only useful if it performs as well as or better than unsustainable alternatives. 

Just as MIRUM does not compromise on plastic, MIRUM makes no compromise on functionality or aesthetic. That’s why Vogue Business called MIRUM the “most exciting entrant into the field of plant-based leather.” 

The Materials Innovation Initiative writes about MIRUM, “It has superior tear strength, flexibility, dimensional stability, and fabrication integrity than alternative synthetic leathers and exhibits properties closer to natural leathers.”

Moreover, a sustainable product is only impactful if it scales for global industries and applications. MIRUM is especially well-suited for footwear, automotive interiors, and accessories. (Footwear and automotive alone account for about two-thirds of the global leather market, according to the International Council of Tanners.) Not only is MIRUM scalable, it is endlessly tunable and customizable — a designer’s dream. 

Global brands are leading the charge. 

Allbirds, for example, is using MIRUM for its forthcoming shoe. 

BMW recently invested in NFW and MIRUM. Explaining their rationale, BMW has summarized what makes MIRUM categorically unique:

“While there is a burgeoning ecosystem of startups making alternative leather using a variety of technologies (e.g. mycelium-based, recycled leather, specific plant-based, lab-grown), they all have shortcomings in one (or more) of the following areas:

  1. Perform comparably to leather (durability, resistance to abrasion, color-fastness, etc.).
  2. Cost-competitive to existing leathers (i.e. animal or synthetic leathers).
  3. Scalable to produce meaningful volumes for a number of customer verticals, particularly automotive.
  4. Environmentally friendly with minimal carbon footprint.

NFW so far is the only company that checked all the boxes.”

Beyond vegan leather

Plant-based leather should not be just another “marketing disaster” of hollow ethical claims and fashion industry greenwashing. 

Plant-based leather alternatives should live up to the name. The industry standard must be high-performance with 100 percent natural inputs. 

NFW has proven technologies to make a difference in global markets and industries. Investor-partners like Ralph Lauren, Allbirds, and BMW are validating that NFW — through materials like MIRUM  — has what it takes to make sustainable materials for global markets and applications.

Do you want to see what sets MIRUM apart for yourself? Request a sample today.

July 28 2021