Leather is a luxury fashion item, but its production is hard on the environment, and is a frequent target of ethics concerns.
But now, an unlikely partnership – a chemical engineer and a group of fashion students – has created an alternative that looks and feels like real leather without the environmental cost.
"It's lightweight, and it can be much more durable than the natural leather, and it can also be made in a way that it's highly fashionable," said Richard Wool, a chemical engineer at the University of Delaware in Newark.
This new material – which Wool calls "eco-leather"-- is made with cotton or other natural fibers mixed with plant oils. They're heated and pressed together in layers to create a kind of fabric that looks and feels just like leather.
The production of real leather frequently comes under fire from animal rights groups and environmental groups because of the harsh chemicals used to "tan" the animal hides into the finished product.
On the other hand, eco-leather produces minimal waste, the researchers say. Fashion students love it, too. It can be made in any color and it has a luster to it that natural leather lacks. It is also more affordable and more durable than the real thing.
The new eco-leather's creators hope that the product will become a hit in the fashion industry.
"If all goes according to plan, the first products should start appearing in about a year's time," said Wool.
Noel Waghorn is the lead writer and producer for the American Chemical Society. He spent a decade as a journalist with major news organizations such as the Associated Press, ABC and CTV News in Canada.
Editor's note: The text has been updated to reflect a more precise use of the term "eco-leather."