From cactus fibre materials to those made from fruit waste and mycelium, they all want a piece of the fake leather pie. And that pie is very large: Grand View Research valued it at $33.7bn in 2021.

Reality is more complicated for these materials. Some are not as sustainable as they claim because they still include a fair amount of fossil fuel-based components. Durability and biodegradability have not been proven for many either. Also, the fact that the hides will keep coming as long as society eats meat is often glossed over. It is, however, only a matter of time before some new materials advance to a stage where they become common components in shoes, cars and furniture.

In general, bio-based alternative materials have homed in on the leather market – rightly or wrongly – for a few reasons, say CEOs of alternative material start-ups. The first is from a purely cost perspective. New technology is expensive so going after leather’s higher-end, higher-quality segment makes business sense. Pleather and PU-based faux materials are low-end disruptors, making that market less desirable, at least initially, they say.

Second, today’s consumers are more demanding, and many follow a vegan lifestyle.

Logically, it follows that they want a sustainable, high-quality alternative to animal products. This is also increasingly true at the luxury level. In fact, some start-up leaders interviewed say that certain luxury brands are worried leather will eventually go the way of fur and younger consumers will eventually shun any animal-based material.

If you can’t beat them, join them

Enter ISA TanTec, a global leather manufacturer specialising in producing eco-friendly leathers and sustainable new materials for footwear, handbags, apparel and accessories. Based on its experience working towards sustainability, the company launched a division called Creation of Sustainable Materials (COSM). The new initiative is a response to growing demand from consumers who want animal-free materials. COSM materials are bio-based and biodegradable, manufactured plant-based materials such as mycelium, cellulose and other such ingredients.

“Sometimes, you cannot work against people’s opinions, and you have to find a way to make use of them instead,” Uwe Hutzler, ISA TanTec’s chief executive officer told CEO magazine. “We want to enter the market and replace plastics, which are falsely called sustainable, that are being used as alternatives to leather right now,” Hutzler told the publication.

Within the industry, initial reactions have not always been positive regarding such developments or partnerships with alternative materials. Heller Leder, a German upholstery tanner with a century of history, agrees that the way to go is peaceful coexistence and collaboration.

“Bio-based alternative materials can complement each other in the sustainable future market and do not necessarily have to cannibalise each other,” says Frank Fiedler, CEO of Heller Leder.

This belief and a desire to innovate led Fiedler and Heller owner Thomas Strebost to enter into a development partnership with Bolt Threads, which has developed the mycelium-based material called Mylo.

“We were immediately fascinated by the challenge of bringing a hitherto completely unknown basic material to production readiness in a tannery,” Fiedler says. And the tannery is still a necessary component in the production of mycelium-based materials as well as other lab-grown innovations.

From a start-up CEO’s point of view, finishing alternative bio-based materials offers tanners a piece of stable business. The emerging sector provides tanners with a price guarantee for business volumes that will make life easier. Of course, the initial willingness among tanners to work with these new materials is not universal. Alternative materials makers say that they certainly want to have tanning partners because of their extensive expertise. One start-up said, however, that if too many close the door on collaboration, they can find other routes to production, ultimately bypassing the traditional tannery.

Heller Leder says that, in principle, Mylo will be applicable to all markets with cover materials. The focus in development to date has been on Bolt Threads consortium partners for Mylo. These are Adidas, Lululemon, Stella McCartney and the Kering Group. Thus, the markets for sneakers, sporting goods, accessories and leather goods are the first focus.

Most alternative producers report that they are pursuing these easier segments of business first. They are working to eliminate the problematic ingredients found in many biomaterial alternatives these days: polyesters and other non-sustainable additives. As the materials improve and their qualities can be specifically engineered for more uses, their market will expand.

Both ISA and Heller have noted that these materials are complements to leather and replacements for plastics. In fact, Heller Leder strongly emphasises that leather is a biomaterial, and that the company will by no means stop producing its fine leathers.

“Many materials that are currently experiencing hype will disappear from the market again. Partly because they cannot be produced in volume and partly because many alternative products are predominantly greenwashing and have no real sustainable claim. Leather does not have to hide in comparison to other bio-based materials, but the production and traceability of the supply chain definitely has to become more transparent.”

Moreover, Fielder notes that ‘leather-free’ does not necessarily mean vegan and ‘vegan’ does not necessarily equal sustainable. “As long as this hype about alternative upholstery materials is not also objectively measured against the comprehensive production conditions and the properties of a material, taking into account comfort and durability, marketing will primarily influence the perception of the end customer. And when it comes to marketing, a new broom sweeps clean.”

Clean cut

Against a backdrop of peaceful coexistence, Heller and Bolt have also come to a secondary – but no less important – agreement: to exclude negative comparative marketing of leather and Mylo. This is key because many other materials try to position themselves as more desirable by denigrating leather, particularly from the vegan standpoint.

And what about the sustainability and desirability of many of these other materials? Whether they will be able to gain significant market share is unclear and at this point, mycelium-based materials are the frontrunners. A recent article in Bloomberg hails these innovations as the most viable, sustainable alternative material for vegan consumers. Bolt Threads is not the only company with a mycelium-based product. The start-up MycoWorks developed Reishi, another fungus-based material. Hermes is using Reishi in a collaboration and MycoWorks is building a $107m plant in Union, South Carolina that will be able to produce a million square feet a year.

A third company in New York, Ecovative Design, has a number of deals, including with Wolverine Worldwide Inc, parent of shoe brands including Merrell and Sperry, to use its Forager mycelial material. Forager uses the company’s AirMycelium technology to produce large sheets of pure mycelium material at commercial scale. The company can fine-tune density, shape, tensile strength, texture, and other qualities for specific product standards. Ecovative also has a Mycelium Foundry that tests new strains and growing conditions to develop novel materials with distinct qualities.

The obvious bonus to mycelium-based materials is the ease of creation. Ecovative, told Bloomberg that it can grow a tannery-ready 523ft2 sheet of mycelium for its Forager material in just nine days. On just one acre of land, Ecovative’s first dedicated farm can produce of more than three million square feet of Forager per year.

We all know that a lack of leather is not the reason for producing these materials. In fact, the Leather and Hide Council of America says that in the US alone, 10–20% of cattle hides go to waste in landfills or are otherwise destroyed. That’s more than five million hides. Globally, the figure is around 40%, or about 120 million hides.

The bottom line is that creating these new materials to displace leather in the name of sustainability is a losing argument. But, as fashion industry analyst Veronica Bates Kassatly told the Bloomberg reporter, “If, on the other hand, the aim is to replace plastics – well, that’s a real boon.”