For Anjana Arjun, running an eco-friendly fashion company was non-negotiable after she returned to Chennai from New York.
While studying fashion at New York’s Parsons School of Design, the 27-year-old learnt more closely how toxic the industry can be, pushing her to research deeply on materials that are more friendly towards the environment. After two years of research, she found some value in fruit and plant-based leather. And last year, Anjana launched Sarjaa, a premium handbag brand that uses leather made from apple, cactus and pineapple, in Hyderabad. The hardware in her bags, worth around ₹30,000, are made from recycled metals.
“I didn’t want to fall into the ‘vegan leather’ trap. Anyone who thinks of sustainability in India would think only of jute, linens and neutrals,” says Anjana. “I wanted to create a chic, refreshing sustainable brand that use fruits and vegetables, not plastic-based materials (some brands use polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, and polyurethane leather, PU, to capture the ever-increasing number of the animal-loving consumer).”
While her bags don’t have the long shelf-life of leather counterparts, they claim to give the wearer a good 10 years, besides being water-resistant. The catch: fruit leather is still an expensive, new material, and gaining customers’ confidence is tough.
The global leather market size accounted for $419.3 billion in 2021 and is at a CAGR of 6.2-6.5 % from 2022 to 2030. The global synthetic leather market size was valued at $33.7 billion in 2021, and has a higher CAGR at 8 %. India is a huge market for synthetic leather, especially since the Indian leather industry reported losses worth $1.5 billion during the pandemic. While the bio-based leather industry was worth a far lesser $647 million with a projected CAGR of 6.1 %.
Social media has led to a boom in the sustainable fashion industry with more consumers checking how and where their clothes are made. This has the marketing heads at brands pull up their socks, especially in the leather industry, which can be polluting and is an animal product.
As a result, several brands now sell plastic-based soft materials that look just like leather as vegan leather to capture the animal-loving, environment-friendly consumer. The production of garments made from fossil fuels, polyester and other synthetics has tripled since 2000. Brands are conveniently marketing petroleum-based synthetic materials such as plastic leather as vegan leather as sustainable, so just skipping your plastic shopping bag barely makes a difference to your green cause.
PU, a polymer can be manufactured to any designer's specifications and numerous materials can be utilized to create vegan leather. It can also incorporate natural materials like cork with synthetics and even recycled plastic.
Vegan leather is often PU or PVC leather or pleather and has other names as well.
“It is best to be aware of the various names that artificial leather goes by PU leather, bi-cast leather, split leather, bonded leather, reconstituted leather, and corrected grain leather. Vegan leather can also be manufactured from creative and environmentally friendly materials like pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, and other fruit debris. Poly-based vegan leather is worse for the environment than traditional leather because it can be produced from polymers that take years to biodegrade. It requires a lot of water, energy and chemicals to process and create the material that, tragically, influences the world. Micro-plastic pollution poses a serious concern. And buyers don't take the time to learn about what they're buying, so they assume that just because it screams vegan, it must be better,” says Vishal Singh, a post-graduation textile design student at Pearl Academy, Delhi, who has been researching on the subject of fruit and other vegan leather.
PU and PVC leather also don’t last as long as leather, and often when you see your bags and shoes peeling in your wardrobe (especially when unused), you can blame PU’s make for it. Singh explains that this is because faux leather is a bonded material with a synthetic covering (often polyurethane) to make it look strikingly similar to genuine leather. It is prone to peeling and compared to genuine leather, this synthetic material is brittle and will eventually chip and peel from use. “Vegan leather peels and cracks because, unlike real leather, its nature does not allow for any "giving" or stretching. The leather will simply tear away from its backing once it has been stretched to its maximum capacity. It depends on the type of bonding agent used and how much peeling there is. Several items of bonded leather furniture can be fixed with fillers and vinyl adhesives,” says Singh, making real leather more durable than vegan leather.
Although leather has been tanned for thousands of years, research on leather substitutes has only recently begun.
Fashion designer Ateev Anand, who used to run the footwear label A.K.A. Bespoke, quit footwear-making for the lack of good alternatives to real leather and plastic leather. “I had not found good alternate materials and ways to manufacture leather hence I stopped working with footwear,” says Anand.
A solution could be plant-based leather, made from ingredients like mushroom, pineapple, corn, banana, apple, cactus, green tea, coffee grounds and coconut. “Plant-based leather may have less than 40 times lower carbon impact than traditional leather and 17 times lower carbon impact than synthetic vegan leather. Many options even use agricultural waste, making it a true win-win. Plant leather ticks off a lot of boxes: cruelty-free, climate-friendly, and low-impact. Some vegetable leathers are also as durable as animal leather while being attractive and surprisingly leather-like in feel and appearance,” says Sakshi B. Paul, associate professor (fashion and textiles), Pearl Academy, Delhi.
Paul gives the example of mango pulp used to make leather by Fruitleather Rotterdam, a company from the Netherlands that makes leather using unsold mangoes in grocery stores. Every week, co-founders Koen Meerkerk and Hugo de Boon receive about 1,500 mangoes from a Dutch importer at their studio. Their leather is supplied to designers across the world to make all kinds of products. Mango pulp leather lasts more than 10 years, which may not be equivalent to the life of traditional leather, however, it lasts longer than synthetic leather. Pineapple leather is suede-like leather that is far more durable, water-repellent, and lightweight.
Nova Milan is another fashion-forward company making vegetable leather from discarded pineapple leaves and other agricultural waste. Based in Costa Rica, the firm claims to be the first full supply chain ecosystem, creating petroleum-free, plant-based vegan leather.
India, too, is seeing the entry of brands offering plant-based leather accessories. Malai, for instance, is a compostable coconut leather company. Or Anita Dongre's latest plant-based leather accessories. Incense company Phool, on the other hand, is producing mushroom leather by combining mycelium with bacterial culture and flowers.
“There is speculation that mushrooms could replace plastic. Many people have high hopes for the sustainable growth of mycelium into a variety of items beyond leather substitutes because it is such a strong material. Known sometimes as MuSkin, mushroom leather is a vegan substitute material created from mushroom roots. Mycelium is the name for the roots, and some ingenious people have discovered a way to feed and grow the mycelium cells into what may be the strongest vegan leather on the market,” says Singh.
The higher price point is what deters average buyers. Laksheeta Govil, founder of footwear brand Fizzy Goblet says that though she would love to move to non-plastic-based materials for vegan options, using fruit leather for her brand will greatly affect the price points in an already price-sensitive Indian market, where it takes the consumer some convincing to spend a premium on indie brands.