A big conversation surrounding non-animal leathers has started in the sustainable fashion community. In recent years, the vegan leather market has expanded beyond just pleather or plastic-based leather alternatives, and now encompasses a variety of materials.
According to PETA, other innovative and more environmentally-friendly alternatives include cork, apple peels, cactus, pineapple leaves and mango skins.
Vegan leather has been part of our wardrobes for longer than we’ve realised, but has gained popularity and the position of first preference over the real deal as society has become more conscious of the environmental impact of producing animal hide leather products.
Adriano Di Marti, a Mexican company, has developed a vegan leather called Desserto. This leather is made from nopal cacti, also known as prickly pear cacti. They are favoured as they require very little water during the growing and production processes. It requires 200 litres of water per 1kg of dry material.
The mature leaves of the cactus needs to be harvested while keeping the core of cacti intact. This ensures that the leaves will grow back in six to eight months. Once they are cut, the leaves are finely mashed and left to dry in the sun for three days.
When the right moisture level is reached, the leaf mash is mixed with non-toxic binding chemicals and attached to a backing.
Cactus leather is also called nopal leather, and is partially biodegradable and as soft as animal hide leather.
Cactus plants can be used for up to eight years if properly cared for, with their leaves regenerating in just under a year.
How animal hide leather tanning impacts workers
Animal hide leather must be tanned before it can be made into products such as shoes, wallets and jackets. The chemical tannery effluent that results from this process is know to contain a number of pollutants. These include salt, lime sludge and acids. Tanning stabilises collagen or protein fibres in animal skins, stopping it from degrading or rotting.
Tannery effluents have been linked to causing cancer, as the Centres For Disease Control (CDC) found that incidences of leukaemia were higher among residents who lived near a tannery in the state of Kentucky in the USA.
Studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer also show that leather-tannery workers at factories in Sweden and Italy had a 20%-50% higher chance of having cancer.
“Leather has the greatest impact on eutrophication, a serious ecological problem in which runoff waste creates an overgrowth of plant life in water systems, which suffocates animals by depleting oxygen levels in the water and is the leading cause of hypoxic zones, also known as ‘dead zones’,” said PETA.