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Leather Lowdown: Fruit, Fungi and a Focus on Planet-Friendly Processing

News of traditional leather’s demise has been greatly exaggerated.

Despite spiking demand for vegan and other eco-friendly alternatives—a trend that tracks with the growing consumer predilection for plant-based diets—cowhides, a byproduct of beef and dairy consumption, have continued to conduct brisk trade. This is especially true of the luxury sector, where high-quality leather remains synonymous with opulence, indulgence and expense.

The data appears to bear this out. Analysts at Grand View Research expect the global leather luxury goods market to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 4.8 percent to reach $66.6 billion by 2025. Even other non-cow forms of leather—say, from discarded fish skins—haven’t budged cowhide from its perch. Adoption by brands such as Dior, Prada and Nike aside, fish leather remains “niche,” accounting for 1 percent of global leather sales, according to Lux analyst Cecilia Gee.

Indeed, years of bad publicity stemming from traditional leather’s polluting tanning practices, potential for animal cruelty and dangers to worker health and safety, along with cowhide’s indelible associations with factory farming, greenhouse-gas emissions and deforestation in the Amazon, have only dented its popularity.

Though the number of new “pure leather” products dipped between January and May, vegan alternatives only made up 3 percent of all leather arrivals, according to Edited’s 2020 Sustainable Edit report. But conventional leather doesn’t have time to be complacent, not when its faux counterpart is showing a 4 percent growth year over year, the retail intelligence platform noted.

Cult brands such as Telfar and Nanushka, Edited added, are “propelling vegan leather forward in this space, reframing it as an affordable luxury.” And though vegan leather’s critics decry the widespread use of polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride, which are derived from petrochemicals and can contribute to the planet’s burgeoning plastic crisis, nature-based innovations gleaned from apple and grape waste or mushroom roots have also started to rear their heads.

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There are other rumblings of an impending revolution: In April, fashion search engine Lyst noted that searches for “vegan leather” have ballooned by 69 percent year over year.

Modernizing leather for the conscious consumer

But leather—and the massive industry behind it—isn’t giving up its foothold on fashion without a fight, or at least an effort for reform. At the forefront is the Leather Working Group, which assesses the environmental compliance and performance capabilities of leather makers using ratings ranging from Bronze to Gold. Platforms such as Bluesign, the Oeko-Tex Leather Standard, Textile Exchange’s Leather Impact Accelerator and ZDHC’s Roadmap to Zero have also developed guidelines to help leather producers and brands minimize the toxicity of their products, ensure animal welfare and promote traceability. The goal: To brandish leather as a sustainable, even circular, material.

“To us, leather is actually a perfect example of circular economy. Not a single cow is bred for the purpose of delivering hides to Ecco,” said Thomas Gøgsig, VP, head of applied research, at the Dutch leather manufacturer. “We use hides from animals that are raised for their meat and milk and turn a byproduct from the food industry into beautiful, long-lasting leathers. As long as the meat industry exists, eliminating the waste from their production would be a huge environmental challenge without the leather industry.”

But leather production’s faults remain manifold, and the question about whether an old material can be taught new tricks looms large. Among the chief targets for change is tanning, a stage that frequently relies on hazardous chemicals such as sulfuric acid and chromium, and is arguably the cause of most of the material’s environmental ills.

Processing with the planet in mind

So-called “vegetable tanning,” perfected by ancient humans using tree bark and other plant-based materials, is making a comeback, albeit with a few modern tweaks. Germany’s Wet-Green, for instance, employs a mineral-free, Cradle to Cradle Gold-certified process based on olive leaves, a byproduct of olive growing, as an “environmentally safe and healthy alternative” to conventional chrome and other chemical tanning processes. “In terms of environmental and health considerations, our product is physiologically completely harmless across the entire value chain,” the company said. “And in addition, leather manufacturing waste products such as shavings can also be returned to the value chain.”

Last month, Smit & Zoon, a Netherland-based supplier of wet-end and finishing leather chemicals, spun off Nera, a company whose tentpole tanning system, dubbed Zeology, is being described as the “beginning of a new era for sustainable leather” for the fashion, automotive, aviation and home-furnishing sectors.

Smit & Zoon developed Zeology as a “more sustainable, chrome-free, heavy metal-free and aldehyde-free alternative” to conventional tanning agents, said Pim Wilgenburg, the company’s strategy and new business developer. With zeolite, a naturally occurring microporous mineral, as its main ingredient, Zeology is remarkably dye fast, which means the leather being processed requires fewer chemicals at the outset and results in less wastewater pollution. The biodegradable sludge at the end is so clean, Wilgenburg claims, that it can be used as an agricultural amendment. Another advantage: “The product itself is white, so the leather produced is very white, which leads to bright colors,” he said.

In an increasingly thirsty world, leather processing’s prodigious water use is also coming under scrutiny. It’s with this in mind that Ecco rolled out its agua-sipping DriTan technology in 2018, hailing the innovation at the time as the “first solid step toward water-free leather manufacturing,”

By using only the moisture already present in the cowhides, DriTan “eliminates” chrome-containing wastewater. “Besides saving huge amounts of water, the technology also considerably minimizes the discharge of waste water and the use of chemicals,” Gøgsig said. “The great news is that it produces leathers that are indistinguishable from traditionally tanned leather in terms of quality, characteristics and stability.”

Bellroy + DriTan

In October, Australian accessories brand Bellroy became one of the first consumer companies to offer DriTan leather. The brand’s traditional leathers are already “significantly more environmental” than standard leather because they’re sourced from Gold-rated tanneries by the Leather Working Group, said Andy Fallshaw, its co-founder and CEO. DriTan leather, he added, is an “extension of this.”

While Bellroy’s core range of leathers already use roughly 75 percent less water those from regular tanneries, the addition of DriTan leather to its lineup increases that number to more than 80 percent. “DriTan represents this next evolution, reducing water consumption even further, without compromising the performance characteristics of the leathers,” Fallshaw said.

The label is introducing DriTan into its premium line, but it says it hopes to progressively incorporate more of the material in its broader range. And though all Bellroy products to date have included leather in some form—and its year-over-year growth has been “consistently north of 30 percent”—it isn’t “wedded” to the material, Fallshaw said. The company recently made its first leather-free foray with its “Platinum” line of laptop accessories, which it clad in recycled woven polyester. It also has plans to explore faux options such as Mirum, a plant-based leather alternative by Natural Fiber Welding in Illinois.

“Our core materials philosophy is focused on using the ‘best material for the jobs’—where the jobs should include functional and emotional jobs, as well as responsibility-related ones such as reducing impact and improving industry practice,” Fallshaw said. “We know our customers care about making sustainable choices. Our goal is to have a suite of materials that each offers progress in a key area, and helps customers navigate to the story that resonates most with their value system, while knowing that we’re considering as much of the whole picture as we can.”

Some leather producers are looking to cover different bases as well. In mid-October, ISA TanTec, which bills itself as an eco-friendly leather manufacturer, announced it will be churning out materials made from mushroom mycelium and other plant-based inputs alongside its usual leather production. The development, it noted, was born out of a desire to “meet customers’ needs in response to current market trends.”

The Macau firm’s upcoming offerings—HyphaLite and VeraLite—will utilize processes that minimize their carbon footprint and water and chemical consumption. Any waste that occurs during the production of the materials, including cutting waste, will be “integrated back into the process,” said Reiner Hengstmann, vice president, additional materials, at ISA TanTec. “Mushrooms are an amazing, fast renewable natural organism,” he added. “Due to [their] rapid growth, [the] feedstock availability is almost unlimited.”

Recycled revival

Recycled leather is another area ripe with potential. Nike’s Flyleather, which it debuted in 2017, uses parts of a cow’s hide typically discarded during the leather-making process—up to 30 percent, according to the sportswear giant. Nike grinds up the scraps, mixes them with synthetic-blend fibers and polyester fabric and then fuses everything into a single material. After a finishing process that includes final touches such as pigmentation, the material is placed on a roll for cutting, which it says improves efficiency and creates less waste.

Sustainable Composites, a Pennsylvania startup, is now offering Enspire leather, a recycled leather product it says not only mimics the look, feel and performance—even smell—of tanned hide at half the cost, but also “dramatically reduces” the amount of material that winds up on the cutting-room floor. Made using a patented process that mulches discarded leather scraps and presses them into sheets, Enspire is supplied in 54-inch rolls, “free of holes and other defects,” the company said. Timberland, it added, will be one of its first adopters.

Bellroy’s Fallshaw doesn’t really see traditional leather ever going away, but there needs to be a greater emphasis on how well the tanning inputs, processes and outputs are mitigated and managed—no matter what they are.

“There is still huge demand for beef and animal-based proteins, with billions of hides available to be repurposed into a genuinely useful material,” he said. “But the way we process these hides shows that the devil is in the details.”