In search of the holy grail: Plastic-free vegan

In search of the holy grail: Plastic-free vegan "leather"

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I am acutely aware that an article about plastic is likely to be controversial - especially coming from a brand (i.e. this one) that is trying its earnest best to be eco-friendly. I have written the following to share my experience with sustainable materials and to try to combat, in a small way, the greenwashing I see so often. 

 

By Jessica Kruger, LUXTRA founder.

  

On the surface, my apartment looks like any other. A few trinkets from my travels dotted along the dresser, several stacks of papers in need of attention, a vaguely colour-coded bookshelf inspired by those perfect ones you see on Pinterest, and a jumble of dishes drying next to the sink.

So far, so normal.

Just don’t open the cupboards...

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It’s a London-sized apartment, so there isn’t a great deal of storage space. Where most people might put the coffee and baked beans, my cupboards are filled with handbag paraphernalia. I don’t use the dishwasher (hey – I live simply and on my own) so it’s my de facto stationery cupboard, full of envelopes and my stash of packing tape.
The most interesting cupboards though, are the ones full of swatches of fabric and pieces of new-fangled vegan leathers.
You name it, I’ve got a piece of it.

There’s mango, pineapple, apple*, cactus, mushroom, wood, grape, corn, upcycled cassette tapes, Amazon rainforest rubber, silicone, material made from car windshields along with every traditional fibre (organic cotton, hemp, Tencel, …). I have to say though that the SCOBY from making kombucha (kombu-leather?) currently takes the cake for weirdness. Google it. It’s pretty out-there. Or on second thoughts, maybe don’t.

(*you may read on the internet that AppleSkinTM is 50% apple. There is even one article that says it is biodegradable. These claims are wrong, as confirmed by the manufacturer. The apple content hovers between 5-30% depending on the article.)

The reason I am writing this piece is because I want to talk about plastic. And leather. And faux-leather.

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AppleSkinTM  

 

Since January 2017 I’ve spent most of my waking hours on LUXTRA. My family live 16,000 km away in Sydney, I’m single and a bit of an introvert. That adds up to a lot of time dedicated to thinking about, researching and experimenting with these materials. My accountant father would have kittens if he knew how much money I had spent testing and prototyping.

My experience is that a percentage of plastic is needed AT THE MOMENT to create products robust enough to face real life. Products that people like you and I can use without fear that they will crack, that the seams will rip, or that they will start to disintegrate in the rain. Materials made from the cool alternative ingredients listed above need something to bind them all together and to stop the plant-based ones decomposing. Right now, that binder tends to be polyurethane (PU) which is a plastic made from petrochemicals. Plant-based polyurethanes are progressing (indeed this is the basis of the aforementioned corn material) but even those materials still contain around 30% regular, petroleum-based PU.

As you can imagine, for companies wanting to market their "green" credentials, what I have outlined above is not a very popular thing to say. But this is the present state of play and I think we need to call a spade a spade. 

In my opinion, the most eco-friendly material on the market at the moment is Piñatex - a material made from pineapple leaf fibres. There is only a small percentage of water-based PU. Furthermore, Ananas Anam, the company that makes Piñatex, has recently certified as a fellow B Corporation, meaning their sustainability and ethical credentials meet very high standards that have been rigorously tested by an independent team. You'll recognise LUXTRA's Piñatex products by their shiny silver colour, or by clicking here

 

Materials from Fruitleather Rotterdam  

 

So. What are the alternatives?

There are of course natural fibres. The very first LUXTRA bags were made from linen as it’s vastly more eco-friendly than organic cotton. Some very nice friends of mine however helpfully pointed out that not everyone is lucky enough to live in Australia and that linen bags aren’t so well suited to grey and wet cities. Like London.

Other woven textiles didn't quite live up to the vision I had for LUXTRA, so it was back to the drawing board…

I then turned to that age-old material: leather. Real leather. It’s natural and because people still eat a lot of meat, it’s a fairly abundant industry by-product. And by-product = sustainable, right? It’s a very fair point and indeed it’s often suggested that leather is a more “sustainable” material given that it is plastic-free. Following this line of thinking, LUXTRA created vegetable-tanned leather bags for a season. I visited the tanneries and justified it to myself. But then I could no more. Paul McCartney’s words are enough to explain: “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.”

So it seems like we are in a bit of a bind. Vegan materials aren't so eco-friendly given their plastic content. Leather, on the other hand, is more "natural" but is not an ethical option in my view.

 
Surely… there must be another option.
And there is.
It’s coming.
It’s just not available on the market…
YET.

 

Any sustainable-fashion buff worth their pink Himalayan salt will have heard about materials made from synthetic spider silk, mycelium, as well as other mango- and apple-based materials that are plastic free. So exciting, right?!

A bit like lab-grown meat however, these plastic-free textiles are at varying stages of research and development and are not commercially available. I am in touch with the teams behind these innovations but the answer is always the same... "not yet", "it's coming", "contact us again in 6 months."

Some very big brands naturally have early access to these innovative materials. Stella McCartney, for example, has made a dress from synthetic spider silk however it was created for a museum exhibition and at the time of writing (September 2020) it is not available for sale.

Covid-19 of course has also not helped matters and has added delays to development timelines. 

 

Nevertheless, we at LUXTRA remain eternal optimists! So you can count on us to be first in line to test the latest and greatest eco-friendly materials that come to market. 

I still have a spare cupboard or two...

 

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Follow LUXTRA’s Stories on Instagram where we post updates on our progress with these innovative materials.

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