Handbags, shoes and other leather-centric goods have come a long way in the past decade. What used to be a choice between coloured cow hides is now extended to kangaroo, cactus and maybe even cork as well.

When presented with the choice between all of the aforementioned materials as a replacement for genuine leather, which is the best to choose?

Jane Milburn is a sustainability consultant and more recently, a 2019 Churchill Fellow. This prestigious title will have her travelling overseas in 2020 to look at ways that our choices and actions help reduce textile waste and enhance wellbeing.

As an agricultural scientist and advocate for natural fibres, she’s had a thing or two to do with leathers and their alternatives during her time.

Jane Milburn
Jane Milburn in ecodye upcycled silk. Photo by Robin McConchie.

When asked about leather, Milburn reflects with nostalgia: “I remember the leather handbags that I had. Some I’ve still got and some I’ve given away and wish I’d kept,” she says.

That’s not unlike Milburn’s general sentiment and teachings, which are all about working with what you’ve got, keeping clothes and fashion items for longer, and upcycling old products into something new.

When it comes to leather as a material, her views are quite favourable. For Milburn, leather provides the grounds for a product to be long lasting and also respect the animal it came from.

“People didn’t start using leather because they wanted to be cruel to animals. They used and still use leather because it’s durable, it wears well, and in some cases provides warmth as well,” she says.

“If you have a lovely product that serves you well and you look after it for a long time, you are valuing the life of the animal that gave you that product.

“As a byproduct of the meat industry, it is a great source of a durable material. Why not utilise every aspect and value the animal?”

The serious issues associated with leather

Leather products haven’t exactly earned themselves the best name in an industry tarnished with unethical production, excessive waste and poor processing standards.

Milburn says the growing concern about animal welfare is the first place people come from when they think of leather.

“They’re worried about animals being mistreated in bringing that product to market, and that is a legitimate concern about animal welfare. I completely understand people’s desire not to purchase or use animal products.

“I personally use leather because I don’t like the current dominant alternatives, which are all versions of plastic. There do appear to be some ethical plant-based alternatives coming on the market, but these are not widely available and often still incorporate plastic.”

Animal welfare isn’t the only issue when it comes to the leather industry through, there’s also the environmental issues associated with the agriculture industry and the processing.

“One of the concerns about leather, and it doesn’t apply to all, is in the tannery process using chromium, and if that’s not managed properly it can be polluting waterways, environments, and harming people handling the products.

“Ethical brands and leather producers avoid these issues by capturing the chemicals and reusing them, and opting for vegetable dyes for tanning in a more natural process.”

What are the animal-free leather alternatives?

Artificial leathers aren’t exactly new to the market. Pleather has been the fast fashion alternative to real leather for donkey’s years.

The leather-looking material is a PU or PVA substance – an oil-based, synthetic fabric that’s better known as plastic.

But with the knowledge that plastic is wreaking havoc on our planet, it’s no surprise customers and brands alike are seeking out new alternatives to these materials.

“We’re seeing all sorts of creative ideas to address non-synthetic leather alternatives for handbags, shoes and clothing alike,” Milburn says.

Clive Street is one of them. The Queensland-based brand makes handbags, wallets and accessories by upcycling car tyre inner tubes to create a leather-like substance.

Duffle bag
Clive Street Duffle Bag

Another brand Eco Luxe Australia based on the Sunshine Coast is using cork to make their alternative handbags.

And brands such as Ahimsa Collective are using everything from pineapple-derived leather alternative Pinatex to washable paper and deadstock vinyl.

A model with an ahimsa collective bag
Ahimsa Collective

In the shoe market, brands such as Indosole and Sole Rebels are making shoes from discarded car tyres and rubber waste.

Milburn says this is a positive move to see brands repurposing waste and going back to natural resources.

“We need to stick as close as we can to natural systems to ensure we’re being kind to our planet at all levels of the supply chain, including disposal,” Milburn says.

“But at the end of the day, the best thing we can do is buy less, buy loved, quality items that last, and mend and make what we can.”