Over a billion animals are killed and skinned each year for their animal leather. If, like us, that fact revolts you, then you’ve come to the right article.
In this short (but enlightening) article, you’re going to discover the wonders of a fantastic vegan alternative to leather – cork leather. Natural cork fabric is one of our favourite materials (with mushroom leather), and not just because it’s vegan. Cork is a beautifully sustainable and eco-friendly material too!
Everything you need to know about cork leather is right here.
What is cork leather?
Leather made of cork, duh.
No really, it is that simple. Cork fabric is one of many leather alternatives but with one key difference. It’s entirely plant-based, made from cork oak.
Sure, PVC and synthetic leathers might avoid the ethical dilemmas of animal leather… but the environmental ones? No way.
We’ve faced a similar dilemma before and made the wrong choice. Plastic bags were invented to save the planet by preventing deforestation for paper bags. Now our oceans are choking from our poor decision.
It’s quite the hole we’ve dug ourselves into!
So, let’s not fall into the trap of replacing one terrible material with another and pretending it’s a solution.
It doesn’t work.
When it comes to faux leather, we need to go totally eco.
Here’s why we love cork fabric
It’s totally vegan.
No animals are used to harvest or create this leather alternative, and there’s no deforestation either. In fact, cork forests in Portugal, Spain and North Africa support diverse ecosystems including many endangered species.
It’s a natural product that doesn’t harm the trees!
Once the cork bark has been harvested, it will regrow and absorb 3 to 5 times the amount of CO2 compared to an unharvested tree.
We love that cork leather is naturally waterproof.
Cork bark contains naturally occurring suberin, which is a waxy substance that repels water and also gives the fabric it’s impressive longevity.
You can’t mention cork fabrics without admiring how durable they are.
Seriously, NASA use it on their space shuttles.
The natural colour of cork is a perfect leather alternative.
It has that gorgeous tan brown shade. If you pick colourful cork products (we have a list below), make sure that the dyes used are non-toxic too!
Cork leather production – eco from harvest to disposal
It all begins with cork oak trees, which thrive in warm climates – you’ll find them in the Mediterranean area, Portugal, and North Africa. While we’ll never have British-grown cork forests, this material doesn’t come from the other side of the world either.
Furthermore, they live for centuries. In fact, evidence suggests that harvesting cork from the trees can extend their lifespan by 300 years.
They’ll outlive you!
The first harvest begins when the cork tree is 25 years old, after which it can be harvested every 9 years when the bark grows back.
This makes cork forests incredibly sustainable and wildlife-friendly, as harvesting cork bark doesn’t destroy the habitat of any critters living there.
The chunky blocks of cork that are harvested are first dried for 6 months before they’re steamed and boiled. So yes, there is a byproduct here, but the water that’s used to cure the cork is totally non-toxic and so it can be reused or simply absorbed back into the earth without damage!
Next, those blocks are carved into thin cork sheets. These thin layers are more flexible and suitable for sewing into shoes, bags, wallets, or left whole to be made into yoga bricks. But they are also used for home insulation and a variety of other innovative uses.
And don’t fret about the leftovers!
Thin cork shavings and leftovers that aren’t used up in projects are reused by innovative companies like this.
If the cork isn’t recycled, that’s not a problem either as it’s 100% biodegradable. Composting it returns cork to the earth to help grow even more sustainable cork oak forests.
Our favourite cork fabric products
Hurrah for sustainable fashion!
Cork bags are super versatile, you can find handbags and shoulder bags, or even backpacks.
As cork is so waterproof and sturdy, it’s safe for storing your laptop, phone (a few cork phone cases even made it in our selection of the best eco-friendly phone cases) and other electronics, no matter the weather.
Likewise, a cork wallet or purse is another great leather alternative. The flexibility of cork doesn’t compromise the durability, so it will flex as you fold your wallet, yet still hold cards securely. Unlike upcycled rubber tube wallets (a favourite of ours), cork wallets don’t have that initial odour either.
The world of cork shoes is forever growing! From Prada leather cork clogs to leather cork sandals (check these ones out!), cork is a good material to use as a replacement for leather, or to replace synthetic rubber soles.
Finally, we can’t mention vegan leather products without talking about cork leather jackets. Yep, they’ll be just as (or even more) expensive than animal leather jackets… but so worth it.
Just remember to check what the lining material is made from, as it’s such a shame to find an eco-friendly jacket with a terrible polyester lining.
When your cork products are at the end of their lives, they can be composted down in your compost heap (check that they don’t have fabric protection spray or dye coatings to prevent this) or sent off for recycling into yoga mats, floorboards, drinks coasters…
Mini cork leather FAQs
Yes, cork is a sustainable material as cork trees are not a finite resource! Furthermore, growing cork is great for the environment and native wildlife where cork trees grow.
Yes, cork wins the durability test. As mentioned, NASA has no qualms about using it on their space shuttles and it’s loved by vegan shoemakers.
Cork is a tough ol’ material, making it great faux leather. Meanwhile, cotton is a softer textile that’s nowhere near as durable even when woven into tough canvas. Both are biodegradable and from natural, sustainable plants… however, cork uses less water to grow/process, can be harvested multiple times from a single tree, and consumes a lot more CO2.