Luke Haverhals, founder and CEO of Natural Fiber Welding, a materials-innovation company in Illinois, sees himself as equal parts scientist and chef.
”We look at different inputs similar to how a chef uses eggs, milk, sugar and butter to make exactly what he wants, whether it’s a souffle that is light and airy or something that sticks to your bones,” Haverhals told Sourcing Journal ahead of the Next-Generation Bio-Based Innovation Summit earlier this month.
Natural Fiber Welding used this ingredients-first approach to create Mirum, a complex composite, derived from plant-based waste such as cork powder, rice hulls and coconut fiber, that mimics the look and feel of leather without the need for cows. In February, cult-favorite shoemaker Allbirds gave Mirum its stamp of approval, investing $2 million to add ”plant leather” to its suite of materials. It plans to launch the first such shoe in December.
s traditional leather loses luster over animal-rights and environmental issues, vegan alternatives stand ready to fill the breach. These are not your mother’s squeaky pleathers or leatherettes, however. Today’s cruelty-free alternatives boast natural origins, such as pineapple leaves, cactus fronds or the root structures of mushrooms, that claim to eschew petrochemicals as much as they do cruelty by using what already exists in copious amounts.
Even so, the fervor for faux crosses generational lines. In a recent survey of more than 500 U.S. adults by the Material Innovation Initiative and North Mountain Consulting Group, 55 percent of respondents said they preferred vegan leather to the genuine article, citing animal welfare as their chief concern, followed by sustainability. But leather lovers who sought out bovine hides for their durability, aesthetics and conferred status didn’t count out ersatz versions either. Some 80 percent of them said they were “open” to purchasing a plant-based alternative, with 25 percent describing themselves as “enthusiastic.”