Whether from an ethical or an ecological point of view, the future of the leather industry can spark many a loaded discussion. Environmental pollution from tannery waste and issues around animal cruelty can be the cause of heated arguments – and rightly so – but how do you balance a more sustainable approach with the fashion industry’s insatiable appetite for animal hide? Design pioneers from across the globe have been actively trying to find the answer. The rise of leather alternatives is upon us, with products to counter the traditional offering now coming from a hugely varied range of sources, from plants to entirely lab-generated bio-options. If you’re in the market for an ecofriendly and ethically minded alternative to traditional leather, look no further than these tireless innovators.
Text Ellie Stathaki
Photography: Zoa and Adam Fithers, Studio Tjeerd Veenhoven, Jacob Maentz and Ananas Anam, Studio Nienke Hoogvliet and Green Banana Paper


Zoa™ is the ‘first biofabricated materials brand inspired by leather’, says its creator, New Jerseybased Modern Meadow; and this is not the only ‘first’ this innovative product claims. Zoa™ is entirely biofabricated, which means that it is free of animal products and lab-grown. The result of an ongoing research development process, this material – launched in 2017 with a series of prototypes – uses nature’s prime protein fibre, collagen, to create a variety of results. It can be moulded and shaped to take on any form, texture, or density. Its applications include a Zoa™ bioleather t-shirt, spearheaded by renowned field pioneer and Modern Meadow Chief Creative Officer Suzanne Lee. The piece was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) 2017 show ‘Items: Is Fashion Modern?’ and subsequently became the first biofabricated item MoMA has acquired in its entire history. There’s plenty more to come from this forwardthinking brand, as the company is currently in collaboration with several partners to develop Zoa™ products further in 2019.



Back in 2011, Groningen-based designer Tjeerd Veenhoven discovered that by dipping dry leaves from the Areca Betel nut palm into a solution of glycerine and water, they developed a leather-like quality – and so PalmLeather was born. This product is natural and sustainable, explains Veenhoven: ‘It is based on raw materials – leafs – that fall from the palm tree naturally throughout India in astonishing volumes, about 1.5 billion square metres per year’. With this extremely cost-effective raw material – the leafs are either entirely free or very cheap – and the use of open-source technology, the Dutch designer has since developed a number of products, from cheap, disposable sandals to high-end consumer products such as a sleek notebook series. He has production facilities in Shivamogga, India, and plans to establish more (the Dominican Republic is just kicking off, and Sri Lanka is next). Furthermore, this operation is not just about profit, or indeed environmental sustainability. Learning and social sustainability play a key role, too. Veenhoven teamed up with the Srishti design school in Bangalore to help bring craft and design closer together through his research, and eventually help contribute to the wellbeing and livelihood of craftsmen in India.


Piñatex® – Ananas Anam

Bridging ecology and enterprise in one fell swoop is no mean feat; yet Dr Carmen Hijosa neatly combines both, bringing together her passion for ethical and sustainable material sourcing with a growing business in the shape of her brainchild, Ananas Anam. When the Spanish-born expert in leather goods manufacturing travelled to the Philippines in the 1990s for research, she was left astounded by the heavy toxic impact the industry has on the environment, and decided to change things. Through Ananas Anam, Hijosa developed Piñatex®, a natural leather alternative made from pineapple leaf fibre. As a byproduct of existing agriculture, Piñatex® is natural, sustainable, socially responsible, and ethical. Now, with a PhD from London’s Royal College of Art and several awards and international recognitions under her belt, Hijosa continues to produce the leather-like textile, which is lightweight, durable, flexible, breathable, as well as rich, soft, and beautifully textured. Applications range from fashion and footwear to furniture and automotive interiors. This does not mean that Hijosa is about to rest on her laurels. The passionate businesswoman is now working with Imperial College London to develop the next generation of Piñatex®, one where the textile is fully biodegradable.



In response to the problem of ocean pollution, Dutch designer Nienke Hoogvliet has created an ingenious alternative to leather, made from fish. Working with the sustainable materials the sea has to offer and aiming to counteract the damaging effect plastic has on our waters, Hoogvliet discovered that fish skin is a common waste product of the fishing industry. Collecting this abundant material, the designer experimented and rediscovered an old, handmade technique of tanning these skins without using any chemicals. Any kind of fish skin can be used for this process, and the result is 100% natural, sustainable, and strong. Putting her project to practical use, Hoogvliet created a stool with fish leather seating and a rug made out of salmon skins, calling her series RE-SEA ME, referencing her appeal to support clean oceans. This is just the beginning for the designer, who is based in The Hague. She believes that while currently the tanning process is fairly labour-intensive, it can be improved and applied on a larger scale, offering potential for mass production. Fish Leather, her recent book, encourages more people to address this issue and consider her animal hide alternative.


Green Banana Paper

Micronesia may not feel like the obvious place to look for cutting-edge design, yet this is the headquarters of one of the most innovative and unexpected companies championing leather alternatives. The eco-friendly Green Banana Paper was set up by Matt Simpson, a US native and keen surfer, who moved to the small Pacific Ocean state in 2008 and started obsessing about the idea of creating product out of banana fibre four years later. Now, Green Banana Paper employs some 25 staff and produces sustainable and ethical vegan paper and wallets using a leather alternative made from recycled banana trees. The operation is fairly small scale and entirely local; the raw material comes from subsistence farmers who want to earn extra income from unwanted banana tree trunks. The product – men’s and women’s wallets in a variety of styles and sizes – is 99% organic and biodegradable. But Simpson’s vision does not stop there. ‘Green Banana Paper is striving toward a closed loop manufacturing process’, he says. The company aims to waste nothing. Byproduct from the banana trees is put into a compost pile for farming, while off-cuts and paper scraps are recycled.