Fruit Could Be the New Frontier in Sustainable, Leather-Free Footwear

For footwear brands looking to use environmentally friendly materials, recycled plastic is a popular choice; Rothy’s, Adidas and Vivobarefoot all use it in their products. But for those who are committed to the look of leather, new offerings made from plants and synthetics could be a vegan alternative that provides quality and a sustainability story, at a lower price than its animal counterpart.

“My sourcing agent has commented that lots of fashion brands don’t end up using these materials because they’re too expensive for a nonleather,” said Rebecca Heykes, design director at new vegan brand Loyal Footwear. “They actually cost about 50% less than the types of high-quality cow and calf hides that they are meant to replace.”

Synthetic alternatives meet vegan standards, but many eco-conscious brands are looking to fruit leathers for a wholly natural solution that often finds new use for plant waste. Frumat produces an apple leather, which offers a visual similarity to cowhide while utilizing apple production refuse (stems and cores).

At Ananas Anam, pineapple leaves are processed and turned into a nonwoven fiber called Piñatex. The fiber requires no additional water, land or pesticides to grow because the leaves are a natural byproduct of local agriculture.

“Sustainability not only covers your environmental impact but also your social and economic impacts,” said Em Mendoza, sales and marketing manager at Ananas Anam. “Our material comes from waste and so we help reduce the carbon monoxide emission of this waste into the atmosphere. Furthermore, it helps farmers provide a more sustainable and stable lifestyle to their families as they earn a second-stream income.”

Pinatex Pineapple Leaves are Harvested
Pinatex is made from the waste of pineapple agriculture, which amounts to approximately 13 million tons every year.
CREDIT: Pinatex

These sustainable benefits can come with additional challenges in terms of design since the textile doesn’t behave exactly like animal leather. Without the integrity of cowhide, fruit leather is often more delicate and needs to be handled as such. Additionally, working purely with a plant-based product and no synthetic fibers can compromise the longevity of the product; synthetics may reduce its biodegradability.

However, fruit leathers are beginning to be adopted at a larger scale as brands become more familiar with the product. Piñatex is currently used in footwear collections by brands like Hugo Boss, Rombaut and Loyal Footwear, as well as in handbags, apparel and furnishings. Additional textiles made from mango, grapevine and mushroom are also in development.

“What a savvy designer really needs to take into mind is how to combine these elements and make a long-lasting, repairable shoe that considers a more circular approach to the product’s lifecycle,” said Heykes.

Watch the video below to see how eco-friendly brand Allbirds is succeeding:

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