Is Vegan Leather Sustainable? - Abbie James

Is Vegan Leather Sustainable?

Is Vegan Leather Sustainable?

In today's rapidly evolving world of fashion, the pursuit of sustainability is the topic of so many conversations. And one conversation which is getting a lot of traction at the moment is the exploration of alternatives of vegan leather. However, the sustainability of vegan leather can be a confusing and multifaceted issue that needs a good examination, particularly concerning the materials used in its production.

Weather you choose to buy vegan leather for ethical, or sustainable reasons, the debate is on as to the authenticity of vegan leather's sustainability credibility. This blog post is here so you can make your own educated decision on your vegan leather choices because knowing the facts enables you to align your spending habits with your values, which we know is more important than ever now.

The Original Vegan Leather

One word describes the conventional vegan leather that is here, there and everywhere. Plastic. As a leather alternative, virgin plastic is an unsustainable, unethical material and if you see a brand touting their virgin plastic as sustainable or ethical, write them a letter explaining what greenwashing is.

Recycled Plastic Vegan Leather

Brands like Hvisk have pioneered the use of recycled materials, repurposing discarded plastic bottles and other waste to create  fashion forward bags for a market that wants the look of leather but not the actual leather. By diverting plastic from landfills and oceans, these brands are addressing a pressing environmental challenge. However, it's crucial to acknowledge the energy-intensive processes involved in recycling and the potential limitations of recycled plastic in terms of durability and biodegradability. If you have the choice to choose recycled vegan leather over virgin, you know which one I’m voting for. 


If you're after a different kind of leather that's tough, eco-friendly, and won't let you down in the rain, cork leather might be your thing. It's been gaining popularity in fashion circles because, well, it's sustainable and does the job. Plus, it's strong, lightweight, and doesn't need much fuss to keep it looking good.

Cork comes from the bark of cork oak trees. These trees can live for about 300 years, and every ten years or so, their bark gets harvested. This harvesting doesn't harm the trees—they keep on growing and producing more cork. After a six-month drying period, the bark gets boiled and shaped into fabric. If cork vegan leather has a water-based polyurethane backing (and it normally does), this means it won't be compostable.


There's another interesting leather alternative called MuSkin by Life Materials, made from a fungus called Phellinus ellipsoideus. They can grow this fungus to fit whatever size and shape that is needed for a particular design. Plus, this vegan leather can be waterproofed without using any nasty chemicals, which makes it a biodegradable option.

It's even softer than suede and also has antibacterial properties. It's definitely something to keep an eye on for the future, but right now, it seems like the fashion industry hasn't really jumped on board yet.


A couple of years back, mushroom leather, Mylo, was hyped up as the next big thing in eco-friendly materials—and it still has potential. But the company behind it, Bolt Threads, hit pause on Mylo production in 2023 due to a lack of investment. According to Business of Fashion, the company explained, “Despite our intensive efforts, the current macroeconomic climate has made it increasingly difficult to secure the necessary capital to support the scale up of emerging technologies.” They're still figuring out if they can kickstart production again, but this situation highlights a big challenge in the alternative materials scene—getting the funds and setup for materials whose long-term success isn't yet proven.

Mylo is crafted from mycelium, which is basically the root system of mushrooms. Bolt Threads even had a nifty setup to grow mycelium in a vertical farming facility powered entirely by renewable energy.

Up till now, Mylo has mainly been used by a few big-name brands to make handbags and shoes. With its quality and durability, it could really make waves in the fashion world if it had the chance. In 2021, Stella McCartney showcased Mylo in a Vogue shoot, using it to craft a bustier top and utility pants. Later, they also rolled out some bags made with it. Ganni was also in on the action, investing in Mylo for their accessories.

Just a heads up, while Mylo is mostly mycelium-based, it does contain some lyocell and a water-based polyurethane (PU) finish to amp up its strength and durability which means it is not a compostable vegan leather option.

Apple Skin

Ever heard of apple leather? It's another cool eco-friendly option made from leftover bits of apples that usually get tossed aside during harvesting. This offcuts, called Apple Skin, looks a lot like real leather but feels more like paper. Weirdly enough, that's a good thing because it makes it super easy to add different backings, coatings, and effects depending on what you're making.

Now, Apple Skin does have some water-based PU in it, and we're not sure yet if it's biodegradable. But still, brands like VEERAH are getting creative with it, using Apple Skin in their heels. And a few others are giving it a shot too.

The company behind Apple Skin, VegaTex, isn't stopping there. They've got other alternative leathers too, like Lemon Skin—made from the leftover lemons from making lemonade, and Barley Skin, which uses the spent grain from Budweiser's brewing process along with some water-based PU.

Again, this looks like a great idea but it doesn't look like it is compostable as yet.


Mailai is made from leftover from the coconut industry in Southern India. It looks a bit like real leather, but the company who make it say they are not trying to imitate leather, rather create their own unique product.

They create Malai by using wastewater from processing coconuts, which would usually just get dumped. Instead, they use it to feed bacteria in a fermentation process. After about two weeks, that have a sheet of this unique material. Then, they combine it with some gums, natural fibers, and resins to make it durable. It's compostable once you're done with it, since it's made from wastewater and natural stuff.

But here's the catch: Malai doesn't like humidity. It's tough, sure, but it'll start breaking down eventually. They reckon it'll hold up for about 4-8 years if you take good care of it.

So far, not many big brands are jumping on the Malai train. Just a few small regional ones are opting to use it in their designs.


Piñatex, also known as pineapple leather, is a versatile material derived from pineapple leaves. Developed as a byproduct of the pineapple industry, Piñatex offers an alternative to traditional leather while promoting economic opportunities for farming communities. The production process involves extracting fibers from pineapple leaves, which are then processed into a durable and biodegradable material. Piñatex is celebrated for its distinctive texture, breathability, and lower environmental impact.

Pinatex does have PU coating so the end product is not biodegradable. 


Desserto is the cactus leather from Adriano Di Marti Company. They create this material from prickly pear cactus, which is incredibly abundant in Mexico and beyond. Plus, prickly pear has this unique "water-efficient metabolism" that means you don't need lot of water to grow it which makes it a great option.

The best part? They make Desserto without toxic chemicals and without a lot of water wastage. They use rainwater from their ranch in Mexico's Zacatecas state. Big names in fashion like Balenciaga, Hublot, and Onitsuka Tiger have already started using it in their designs.

But, there's been a bit of a hiccup. The Guardian reported in February 2023 that a study by the FILK Freiberg Institute found some chemicals and plastics in Desserto, suggesting it might contain PU. The brand's response? They blamed it on cross-contamination.


Bio-Tex from Modern Meadowis another option in the world of vegan leather. They make this Bio-Tex using their Bio Alloy technology, which basically means they ferment natural ingredients like sugar and yeast to create a luxurious material.

This Bio-Tex feels like the real deal—it's got that soft, traditional leather feel, but without the actual leather. According to Modern Meadow, making Bio-Tex slashes greenhouse gas emissions by 91% compared to regular leather production.

But it's still very new on the scene. Only a few products have used Bio-Tex so far, such as the brand Everlane. And just recently, Tory Burch jumped on board, using it in one of their handbag designs.

Recycled Leather

Not vegan leather, but I thought recycled leather was worth a mention. It's the lesser known cousin of bonded leather—they're basically two peas in a pod. Both recycled and bonded leather follow a similar process. They take discarded leather bits and blend them together with PU to form a pulp. Then, this pulp is mixed with a paper backing using adhesives to create the final material.

Due to it's plastic components it is not compostable.

A lot of vegan leather products are still very much in their infancy stages. While there are  fossil fuels used in many of the products listed above we can only expect positive changes in the future as innovations and technologies create more sustainable options.