Sustainable leather goods... made from cork!

Posted on 12 January 2021.

To combat the pollution created by the leather industry, the German brand UlStO has been producing sustainable vegan bags since 2016. Its secret? Plant-based leather and recycled felt.

Cork oak bark is "a sustainable alternative to animal leather".

Every year, according to the animal protection organization PETA, more than a billion cow, sheep and goat skins are processed to make leather. But from the inevitable deforestation due to intensive livestock farming to the chemical tanning of hides, the many stages in leather production have a negative impact on the environment. For example, every day the tanneries in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, release 22,000 liters of toxic waste into the city’s Buriganga river. The chemicals contaminate the soil and drinking water and increase the risk of death and disease in the local population.

Given the environmental problems associated with processing hides, the German entrepreneur Ulrike Stolze created the UlStO sustainable design label in 2016. Based in Dresden, the brand produces environmentally friendly “leather” goods. Its flagship product is the Luco backpack with its minimalist design and remarkable composition.

It is made from plastic felt using recycled plastic bottles and straps in nylon Econyl, produced mainly from used or abandoned fishing nets. These represent 10% of marine waste, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. By giving this waste a second life, Aquafil, a partner of UlStO, is helping to reduce plastic waste in the oceans and protect wildlife.

Water-resistant vegan leather

As for the leather on the backpack, it is plant-based - quite simply the bark of the cork oak! This natural resource is "a sustainable alternative to animal leather," says the UlStO label. In addition to being biodegradable, it is much lighter, and also resists humidity and dirt - just wipe it clean with a damp cloth.

The raw material used by UlStO is harvested using traditional and sustainable techniques in the cork oak forests of southern Portugal. After peeling, the bark is cut into thin strips and pressed onto a textile weave. These are bonded together by suberin, a natural adhesive present in cork.

Positive effects for fixing carbon

The exploitation of cork oak forests has the distinction of benefiting the environment, as they are excellent carbon sinks.
Because cork oaks renew their bark after harvesting, they absorb between 2.5 and 4 times more CO2 than a tree that is not harvested. Consequently, Mediterranean cork forests filter out nearly 15 million metric tons of CO2 a year.

Going a step further, UlStO has developed a range of accessories using cork. From bow ties to wallets, through to a make-up bag... there is something for everyone, and you get to protect the planet while you’re at it!