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Why leather alternatives don’t necessarily meet ‘animal friendly’ standards

In a new film called SLAY (slay.film), created by award-winning French filmmaker and animal rights activist Rebecca Cappelli, we see how an animal becomes an accessory. The word ‘cruel’ when describing some of the content of the film is an understatement, but it’s a necessary message to spread, as positive change starts with awareness of a problem. SLAY asks us an important question: Is it acceptable to harm animals for fashion?

Leather alternatives have been on the rise, but despite the green claims made by fashion brands using these materials, there is scientific evidence suggesting that those claims could be misleading. It turns out that, to rephrase the saying: There are lies, damn lies, and…vegan leather. A fair warning goes out to disciples of faux leather as the film SLAY serves to reveal a few nasty details that the fashion industry does not talk about when it comes to what leather alternatives are made of.

The only way to find out about greenwashing by alternative leather suppliers is to test their materials. The Research Institute for Leather and Synthetic Materials (FILK) in Freiberg did exactly that by putting samples of vegan leathers under the microscope.

The FILK institute investigated the most well known leather alternatives and compared them to animal leather. The motivation behind the study lies in a quote from the report’s summary: “Consumers must be able to decide what they want. To do so, they must know what they are buying. Misleading terms do not help. This study provides clarity and makes it clear that leather is a special, natural material that humanity, even with a great deal of know-how, has not yet been able to reproduce with all its properties.”

The paper from FILK – called Comparison of the Technical Performance of Leather, Artificial Leather, and Trendy Alternatives – not only examines the differences in make up of alternative materials versus leather, but also tests the performance qualities required in footwear, apparel, and gloves. Below are four well known examples of leather alternatives, and what was found out about them under the microscope.

  • 1. Desserto
  • 2. Piñatex
  • 3. Appleskin
  • 4. Vegea

Cactus leather

Desserto is a Mexican supplier of a leather alternative made from cactus waste. The invention has been applauded by the fashion industry and won accolades such as the LVMH Prize, yet there is an important fact that is not publicly mentioned. FILK found that the product is a PUR-coated textile backed with polyester. The solid and partially foamed layer underneath the top layer is “filled with heterogeneous particles of polyacrylate of organic origin”. In other words, plastic. This hybrid form of vegan leather, combining natural fibers with oil, is a disaster for the environment as the disassembling of materials is impossible with today’s scaled up technology. Furthermore, the study reports on harmful substances found showing that Desserto contained the five restricted substances butanone oxime, toluene, free isocyanate, folpet (an organic pesticide), and traces of the plasticizer Diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP).

Image: Unsplash

Banana leather

Piñatex is another well known product from the Spanish company Ananas Anam. As the article states, the textile is a “non-woven fabric made of pineapple leaf fibres and PLA (polylactic acid); coated with pigmented resin or over-moulded with a high-strength PUR film”. FILK noted it is a non-woven fabric made from natural fibres, coated with a thin polymeric layer that is similar to polyacrylate. There is a difference in feedstock between polylactic acid (PLA) and Polyacrylate. The study found the following harmful substances in the product: the plasticizer Diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP).

Image: Unsplash

Apple leather

Appleskin is an Italian product and company developed with the help from textile company Frumat. Apple leather is made from byproducts of the apple juice industry. The remnants – the cores and skins that end up as waste – are transformed into a pulp that is mixed with polyurethane to create a leather alternative. The following harmful substances were found in Appleskin: butanone oxime and traces of dimethylformamide (DMFa).

Image: Unsplash

Grape leather

Vegea is another Italian product and company from the Northern region. A few years ago at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit I met with them in person and asked about the composition. What one of the team members explained to me was that despite Vegea wanting to do the right thing (100 percent plastic-free), it was feedback from their clients (fashion brands) that forced them to apply chemicals that, as FILK has found, include harmful substances such as toluene.

Image: Unsplash

Is it better?

When it comes to their performance, the study shows that the tensile strength of the leather alternatives highlighted above do not come close to real leather. In particular Piñatex proves weak, which implies that the longevity of a product is compromised. This poses questions such as whether animal leather could be a better option for the sake of longevity. Having to replace a product, of which the materials cannot be recycled, is another issue on its own.

Another non-obvious issue

Let’s go back to the question posed in SLAY: “Is it acceptable to harm animals for fashion?”
If we look at leather alternatives that use food waste with a coating and or binding agents that come from oil, it is not that easy to claim that these are better than the animal original from an animal rights point of view. In fact, another scientist, Professor Luke Haverhals – chemist, inventor, and founder of Natural Fiber Welding – once explained to me how the oil fracking that is needed to make plastic leather directly kills wildlife in the event of oil spills. Combining these three elements – SLAY, FILK’s findings and Prof. Haverhals’ lesson – it’s become clear that we cannot simply state that the discussed alternatives to leather (Desserto, Piñatex, AppleSkin, and Vegea) are that much better given the harmful substances found that come from oil.

Marije de Roos, the Circular Fashion Detective and founder of Positive Fibers, is an economist on a mission to create bio-circular fashion for people who want to wear their values for a better future.


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