Leather is, like it or not, one of the most environmentally unfriendly materials out there. Regardless of your opinions on the rights or wrongs of wearing animal skins (which is something that we as a species have been doing for a very long time) the tanning process is incredibly toxic to both the ecosystem and the workers who have to handle the chemical nasties involved.
The alternatives aren't much better: pleather, made from polyvinyl chloride, is a plastic: just as toxic to make, and it doesn't allow the skin to breathe. There's clearly a gap in the market for a proper alternative to the ol' cowskin.
The appropriately-named Richard Wool, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Delaware, thinks he's found the answer. His eco-leather is made from flax and cotton fibres, which are mixed with plant oils and laminated together in layers. The end result is natural, breathable and has many of the benefits of leather, and none of the environmental costs. Wool says:
“The designers love it because it gives them a whole element of design that they didn’t have before when they were trying to work with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) as an artificial leather substitute. And it’s breathable. It’s not like a plastic that would make your foot sweaty if you wore it.”Nike, Puma and Adidas have all expressed interest in the vegan, non-plastic material, and Wool hopes to move the development and manufacturing schedule up quickly. He's not alone: Puma have already made a pair of test shoes out of the eco-leather.
There are still some problems to work through. The material is stiff, and stitching has a habit of breaking under tension--again, due to the lack of flexibility. Wool and his team are optimistic that these fixes will be completed soon. Those of us who can't or won't wear leather are, I'm sure, equally keen to see the material move into the marketplace.