Leather alternatives

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What are leather alternatives?

In the past, the market for leather alternatives was occupied by imitation leather and everyone knew the difference between leather and imitation leather. New materials are now competing with leather and trying to find a market share between leather and imitation leather. When it comes to the terminology used to label artificial leather and alternative products, in addition to the standard term artificial leather, a lot of energy is put into finding terms that are confusing and often misleading for consumers. Such as the labeling "vegan leather", which is never made of leather and almost never made of natural materials, but mostly artificial leather, combined with the problem of low durability and quality and ultimately pollutes the environment as microplastics.

Research report from the research institute FILK on leather alternatives

In 2021, the research institute FILK published a research report in which leather with possible leather alternatives was examined for their technical properties. Title: „Comparison of the Technical Performance of Leather, Artificial Leather, and Trendy Alternatives”.

In this research work, a wide variety of leather alternatives were compared with the natural product leather. The product names or brands of the examined materials: Desserto®, Kombucha, Pinatex®, Noani® (= no animal), Appleskin®, Vegea®, SnapPap®, Teak Leaf®, und Muskin®. All materials of these brands are already available in free trade.

The materials examined consist of bio-substances and synthetic substances and aim to replace the tanned animal skin with a vegan alternative. A shoe upper leather competed against a synthetic leather and the leather alternatives listed above in this comparison of technical performance.

  • Variant 1 of the leather alternatives: The attempt to produce leather alternatives from almost exclusively biological substances. For example, mushrooms are used for this. Brands like Muskin or Mylo are going this route.
  • Variant 2 of the leather alternatives: Artificial leather manufacturers try to mix biomaterials into their plastic raw materials. Organic waste is used almost exclusively for this purpose. Leftovers from the wine press (wine leather), apple juice production (Vegea®, Appleskin®) or even cactus leaves (Desserto®) are milled and mixed in.
  • Variant 3 of the leather alternatives: Natural fibers from plants (Piñatex) are processed into a kind of fleece material and are then coated.

The focus of the comparative study was on the tensile strength, tear resistance, flex resistance, water vapor permeability and the water vapor absorption

The result: None of the leather alternatives examined could keep up with the universal properties of genuine leather. Some materials achieved respectable results in individual test areas, but overall, the performance of real leather was higher and is not matched by any alternative. In particular, the stability and durability of leather was unattainable for the alternative materials. So far, no alternative material has been able to match the extraordinary properties of the structure of animal skin.

Investments in leather alternatives

In 2022, $457 million was invested in alternative materials. In 2021 it was still 1.14 billion US dollars, which is due to the increase in interest rates in 2022. The environment for venture capital had deteriorated significantly in 2022 due to the rise in global interest rates and inflation. Out of a total of 102 alternative material developers funded, 64 companies were looking for alternatives to leather and the rest were looking for alternatives to silk, wool, or fur (also leather alternative) or down. Around 52% of material developers of all alternative material developers researched plant-based alternatives, near to 20% with microbes, almost 9% with fungi and the rest worked with recycling materials or animal cells.

Additional information