Cork Fabric: Is it the Animal Leather of the Future? - Texas Cork Company

Cork Fabric: Is it the Animal Leather of the Future?

The textiles industry supplies inputs for a wide variety of important consumer products such as clothing, accessories, shoes, home goods, furniture, vehicle interiors, etc. It is an incredibly fast-growing industry as the demand for products such as clothing have been outpacing GDP since 2005. However, despite the importance of this industry, it comes at a great cost to the health of our planet. According to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the footwear and clothing sectors alone can account for at least 8% of the total global GHG emissions, and this value will only increase as demand continues to climb. The UN Conference on Trade and Development also identified the textile and tannery industries as being the primary source of manufacturing pollution in south Asia as well as sub-Saharan Africa.

In the broader cultural quest for sustainability and more eco-conscious choices, the textiles industry has been under enormous pressure to move away from many of the materials and practices associated with "fast fashion". As consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of their purchases, there is growing social and political demand for sustainable alternatives to traditional materials such as animal leather. Cork fabric or "cork leather" is rapidly becoming a popular choice because it is a natural and renewable resource with low environmental impact and other remarkable qualities that make it a compelling substitute for animal leather.

Making Cork Leather

As we reviewed in our blog post The Marvels of Cork, cork is derived from the bark of the cork oak tree (Quercus suber), primarily found in the Mediterranean region. The cork oak tree is one of the only trees on Earth that is capable of fully regenerating its bark after removal, meaning that harvesting cork does not harm the trees. Once the cork has been harvested, it can be turned into a fabric using the steps below:

1. Boiling and flattening: After the cork bark is harvested, slabs are boiled to remove any microorganisms and pressed flat.

2. Splicing and slicing the cork: After the rough outer parts of the bark are removed, pieces can be spliced together using natural adhesives to form larger blocks. These cork blocks are then sliced into thin sheets.

3. Bonding and finishing cork fabric: The thin sheets of cork are then heated and pressed onto a fabric backing. This backing can be made of a variety of materials depending upon the intended use for the cork leather. Cotton blends, recycled PU, and other plant-based fibers are common choices. Finally, cork fabrics can be finished with a variety of natural or synthetic coatings that can alter the look and feel of the final textile.

Pictures depicting the sequential process for making cork fabric beginning with harvesting, then boiling, then slicing and splicing.

For more information on how cork fabrics are manufactured, check out this video.

Cork Fabric Properties That Rival Animal Leather

Quality animal leather has a high perceived value with many consumers in part simply due to ancient traditions. Dating back to medieval times, animal leather was associated with wealth and power as it was typically only prevalent in upper class and noble families. Even today, leather is valued for its unique haptics (hand-feel) as well as its well known durability and longevity. Cork leather boasts a range of properties that make it a formidable alternative to animal leather:

1. Durability: Cork is remarkably durable and resilient, similar to animal leather. Its natural structure includes suberin, a waxy substance that makes it resistant to moisture, rot, and pests. Unlike untreated animal hide, cork is naturally waterproof. It is also generally abrasion and heat resistant.

2. Lightweight: Cork is incredibly lightweight and breathable, as more than 50% of it's volume is air. This property is particularly advantageous for accessories like bags, hats and shoes as it can be more comfortable to wear. Particularly for those with neck, back or shoulder pain, cork bags are an ideal choice as they typically weigh significantly less than similar bags made with animal leather or other materials. Our customers with these types of issues have been particularly fond of bags like the Two-Toned Cork Crossbody Purse and the Natural Cork Tote.

3. Unique Aesthetics: Cork's distinct textures and natural patterns give products a one-of-a-kind appearance. Each cork item has its individual charm because no two slices of bark are identical, appealing to those seeking uniqueness in their fashion choices. Items such as our Molten Gold Cork Leather Bifold Women's Wallet are made with fabrics that intentionally highlight the natural variation found in cork. Animal leather is often valued for the way it feels in a consumer's hands. Our customers actually frequently comment that the cork fabrics feel just as soft, if not softer, than quality cow leather.

4. Hypoallergenic and Non-Toxic: Cork is hypoallergenic and doesn't irritate the skin. This quality makes it an excellent option for people with sensitive skin or allergies to synthetic materials. Growing cork oak trees and manufacturing of cork leather also do not require the use of toxic chemicals.

5. Versatility: Cork is highly versatile and can be molded into various shapes and sizes. It's used not only for fashion items but also in architecture, flooring, and home goods such as our Cork and Ceramic Coffee Mugs. NASA uses cork in their space shuttles, and it is even making its way into the automobile industry! Several vehicle manufacturers including Mazda, MINI, and ultra-luxe Polestar have begun incorporating cork into their interiors, including cork leather upholstery. Importantly, cork can also be combined with other materials to make different types of composites. Our Beachclean and DASH placemats and coasters are made from recycled cork and other recycled materials such as rubber and EVA plastics.

The Environmental Impacts of Leather

The graphic below shows a comparison of carbon dioxide emissions associated with animal leather (specifically from cows in this case), and two different groups of non-animal leather alternatives. Here, "vegan leather" refers to polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) leather-like materials. Plant-based leather collectively refers to any of the leather alternatives derived from plants including cork, cactus, grape, pineapple, hemp, etc. The original graph can be found here

Animal leather, particularly bovine (cow) hide, has a high environmental impact for a variety of reasons. Ruminant livestock, primarily cattle, are a major source of GHG emissions, primarily in the forms of methane and nitrous oxide. However, perhaps more importantly are the other ways in which the cattle industry negatively impacts the environment. The need for grazing land contributes significantly to deforestation worldwide, which reduces overall biodiversity and increases soil erosion in those areas. The chemicals, such as heavy metals like chromium, required in the tanning process to turn hides into leather are also significant sources of water pollution and toxicity in both wildlife as well as humans working in the tanning sector.

As seen below, vegan plastic-based leathers are responsible for lower GHG emissions than animal leather. However, the term "vegan leather" is largely a red herring that contributes to greenwashing for these materials as something being vegan is often culturally associated with being sustainable and environmentally friendly. However, these materials are fossil-fuel derived plastics that, unlike animal and plant-based leathers, are not biodegradable, and instead take centuries to break down. In fact, most products made with these materials end up in landfills and then subsequently end up as a major source of microplastic pollution, a significant environmental challenge worldwide. The manufacturing of these materials also requires chemicals that are toxic both to the environment as well as human health.

While it is certainly our favorite, cork leather is not the only plant-derived leather alternative available. The demand for non-animal and non-plastic materials has led to the innovation of leather-like fabrics made from grapes, pineapple, hemp, cactus, cork, and even fungi! The specific environmental impact varies slightly depending upon the plant product and manufacturing process, however, it is abundantly clear that plant-based alternatives have an overall lower environmental impact than both animal and plastic leathers. Although I was unable to locate specific carbon footprint data exclusive to cork fabric, all cork products for which Life Cycle Analysis has been published show negative carbon balances, meaning that the cork sequesters more carbon than is emitted during the manufacturing of these products (LCAs by Amorim). Therefore, it is safe to assume that cork leather is also carbon negative or at least has a minimal carbon footprint. Like animal leather, cork leather (as well as other plant-based leathers) is completely biodegradable. It is also recyclable, and no harmful chemicals are required in the manufacturing of cork fabric.

Graph comparing carbon footprints between animal leather, plastic-based leathers and plant-based leathers.

Importantly, cork oak forests also positively contribute to the environment in a number of ways. First, the cork oak forests absorb on average 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, meaning they are important for reducing greenhouse gases. In fact, harvesting the bark from a cork oak causes the tree to increase its CO2 absorption by up to 5 times during the regeneration process. Second, these forests are second only to the Amazon rainforest in terms of biodiversity. Many endangered species call the cork oak forests home. As with other forests, cork oaks reduce soil erosion, help regulate the regional water cycle and prevent desertification.


Benefits of Choosing Cork Over Leather

1. Animal-Friendly: One of the most significant advantages of cork is that it is cruelty-free. No animals are harmed in its production, aligning with the growing consumer demand for non-animal product choices.

2. Reduced Carbon Footprint: Cork production has a significantly lower carbon footprint compared to animal leather and other vegan leather options. The harvesting process, minimal processing, and sustainable practices within the cork industry at large contribute to its eco-friendliness.

3. Lighter Weight Products: This is proving advantageous for our customers with joint issues in their upper body when it comes to choosing bags. It is also benefitting vehicle manufacturers making the switch to cork leather interiors as the reduced vehicle weight also improves fuel economy.

While cork offers numerous benefits as a sustainable alternative to leather, one important consideration is that the production of cork is limited to specific regions, primarily the Mediterranean. This can affect its availability and price in some parts of the world. In fact, we have found that most people we've encountered here in the United States know very little about cork, let alone its versatility as a material across many industries. As a result, a core part of our mission is to educate consumers about cork and bring this material into the limelight in Texas and beyond. 

Two pictures of cork oak trees as saplings growing under different conditions in Texas.

This is also why we have embarked on an agricultural journey to begin cultivating the cork oak trees here in central Texas. This is a topic for many later blog posts, I'm sure, but for now we'll leave it to say that our proof-of-concept experiments have gone well and the trees we've started from acorns have survived well here. Follow us on Facebook or Instagram @texascork for regular updates!


Cork fabric is emerging as a sustainable alternative to leather, captivating many different industries and eco-conscious consumers alike. Its unique blend of eco-friendliness, durability, and versatility positions it as a compelling choice for those looking to make environmentally responsible decisions.

As we continue to seek sustainable alternatives in all aspects of our lives, cork stands as a shining example of how traditional practices, like cork harvesting, can be in harmony with nature. So, the next time you're on the lookout for a new bag, pair of shoes, or other items typically made with leather, consider cork – a material that is beautiful today and good for tomorrow. 

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