One of the world’s first Mylo™️ garments created from vegan mushroom leather by Stella McCartney.
One of the world’s first Mylo™️ garments created from vegan mushroom leather by Stella McCartney.
Image: stellamccartney.com

At its recent FY22 earnings call, British luxury brand Burberry announced its new ban on the use of exotic skins, a move People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) and other animal rights defenders claimed as a victory. And why shouldn’t they?

The ban follows a seven-year campaign by its entities and has seen a long list of big brands committing to banning the use of pythons and alligators in their products. Among these are adidas, ASOS, Brown Thomas, Calvin Klein, Carolina Herrera, Chanel, Diane von Furstenberg, Paco Rabanne, Vivienne Westwood and Victoria Beckham, among others.

“Animals are not ours to wear,” Peta said in its statement, praising the move and posted on its website a video that shows factory workers sealing the mouths of seals with constriction bands, crocodiles being electroheaded, stabbed and inflated, and others likely being skinned alive to make bags, shoes and other accessories.

They further note: “Using animals for clothing or accessories is a dying business. As people everywhere learn that animals suffer in the fashion industry, companies, fashion design universities and even entire cities are banning animal-derived materials.”

Next Peta is targeting the likes of Louis Vuitton and others.  The exotic skins ban by Burberry stops short of banning animal leathers altogether, but many are hoping that such moves pave the way for more brands to look for more leather substitutes, and plant-based alternatives are taking the lead. 

As people everywhere learn that animals suffer in the fashion industry, companies, fashion design universities and even entire cities are banning animal-derived materials
PETA

Only about 1% of leather sales include exotic skins, according to biomaterials company Modern Meadow. The restriction of the use of leather is said to be uncommon outside brands built specifically around sustainability.

These include Veja, and Stella McCartney, which has never used animal skins from day one, choosing vegetarian leather instead.

With longtime partners Bolt Threads, Stella McCartney last year launched Mylo, a label offering soft, sustainable leather alternatives made from lab-grown mycelium — the underground root system of mushrooms. It is grown in a vertical farming facility 100% powered by renewable energy and the garments produced from the material look remarkably similar to animal products.

It’s not just mushrooms. Brands use different approaches and are at various stages of experimenting with these materials. Cape Town’s We All Share Roots stocks a range of vegan clutch bags called ‘Ipanapula’ — the Nguni terms for ‘pineapples’, to incorporate alternative leather into clutch bags that also feature a combination of shweshwe and other print fabrics.

Sylven New York and Good Guys Don’t Wear Leather are two brands that have experimented with apple leather, made from organic food waste — leftover cores, skins, stems, and seeds from the fruit.

Sylven New York founder Salima Visram told Fast Company they are working with European producers to make the apple leather for their bag collections. “We tried mushroom, pineapple leather and coconut leather, but it didn’t have the luxury feel we wanted,” she is quoted as saying.

An Ipanapula Vegan Clutch.
An Ipanapula Vegan Clutch.
Image: Supplied

While the likes of Stella McCartney and its collaborators have long incorporated renewable energy sources into their production, the jury is still out on just how much the use of alternative leather as opposed to traditional, genuine cowhide leather, for example, benefits the environment.

Brands such as SA’s Jekyll & Hide argue, for example, that because traditional leather is a durable material that is less likely to be disposed of in a hurry, it can work for decades as opposed to materials with a shelf-life perhaps much shorter. “These products are often very easy to biodegrade but don’t have the same shelf-life or durability as traditional leather,” they say in a statement on their website, listing their sustainability initiatives.

Still, Burberry’s move and others like it, including Gucci, marks an acceleration of an industry-wide race for next-gen materials as sustainability increasingly becomes something the fashion industry can no longer ignore. The plant-based trend that has become a wellness and food industry mainstay over the years is spilling over into an industry where its sustainability remains untested, but nonetheless welcome.

In a report profiling hundreds of brands, the Material Innovation Initiative explored strategies for meeting consumer demand for increased sustainability and animal-free products by looking at some of the world’s leading fashion, automotive and home-goods companies. The report noted that 94% of consumers surveyed have a preference for next-gen materials over animal-based materials.

Combining with these new explorations, consumer readiness is an important factor to consider for brands seeking balance between increased demands for sustainability, demands from the likes of Peta, and their bottom line in a quest to continue offering consumers a high-end product.

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