What is corn leather and is it sustainable?

Looking for shoes that are more sustainable and ethical than the average? While animal-derived leather is both cruel and harmful to the planet – with a high climate impact and land footprint resulting in biodiversity destruction – not all leather alternatives are ideal choices, either. As we move beyond totally synthetic leather, partly bio-based leather alternatives are a great step in the right direction. One such material is ‘corn leather’.


What is corn leather made of?

Corn leather is made in part from, you guessed it, corn. Well over half of the total material content is plant-based, made up of both corn husks and vegetable oils. The rest of the material is made of synthetic substances, which are blended with the plant-based ingredients.

It takes about 120 days for corn to grow from a seed to the point of harvest (while cows are killed after up to two years of grazing and growing). This far shorter time period makes corn production more efficient and sustainable. Once corn is harvested, it is fermented and chemically transformed so that dextrose – a type of natural sugar – can be extracted from it. This sugar is transformed into a polymer fibre, which is then melted and made into pellets which are able to be blended together with synthetic materials to create a leather-like material.

Corn leather is both supple and sturdy, making it perfect for shoes, and the particular corn leather we use is made transparently in Brazil.

Why do we need leather alternatives?

Leather alternative materials like this one are critical to efforts to create a more genuinely sustainable and ethical fashion industry. Cow skin leather, the most common animal-derived leather, has one of the largest greenhouse gas footprints of all materials, and is tied to environmental harms like deforestation, excessive water use, and intensive chemical use during tanning, which renders skins non-biodegradable.

What’s more, all animal-derived leather is created in supply chains which treat thinking, feeling animals as though they are objects: mutilating and ultimately slaughtering them, prioritising profit before life. Leather is a highly valuable co-product of the meat and dairy industries, and when we buy alternatives to leather, we help to shift profit away from slaughterhouses and destructive, cruel cattle ranches. Who wouldn’t want that?

Why do we need improved leather alternatives?

While creating leather from the skins of animals is neither ethical or sustainable, that doesn’t make all leather alternatives inherently environmentally friendly, either. PVC, for example, is a synthetic material used in some faux leather, which is highly toxic. We never use PVC as a leather alternative, and since Greenpeace began advocating for a move beyond the material, much of the fashion industry has too – though it’s still a problem, particularly in fast fashion. Today, the most common leather alternative is polyurethane synthetic leather – and polyurethane is what is blended into our corn leather.

While polyurethane has a far smaller climate, land and water footprint compared to animal-derived leather, and it’s less toxic than PVC, it’s still not perfect. It’s not biodegradable, and in most cases is made of fossil fuels – however more and more, we’re seeing largely water-based polyurethane (or PU) becoming available. The benefit of partly bio-based materials like corn leather is that the amount of synthetic material is significantly reduced, replaced with renewable plant matter. The more plants the better, and as material innovation continues, the amount of plant matter in leather alternatives is only increasing!

Shoes made from corn leather

If you’re keen to get some corn that looks like leather on your feet, we can help with that. Here are some of our favourite corn leather shoes:

The Quinn boots

We’ve made our classic Quinn boots in a number of colourways and textures now, but corn leather is undoubtedly our favourite. These Brazilian made boots are made ethically with a thick and chunky platform sole, lifting you up while our soft and breathable corn leather is laced up over your feet.

The Ciaran sneakers

These two-tone sneakers feature both black and pure white corn leather, propped up on a sleek white Vibram sole that will keep you comfortable. The texture of the corn leather is smooth, featuring very light and small pebbling which mimics animal-derived leather. The laces on these sneakers are gently waxed, looking equally smooth.

Ciaran Corn Leather sneakers by Zette Shoes

The Jacqui boot

Another cult classic from our in-house label, Zette, Jacqui has been created in floral prints, reptilian textures, bold colours, glittering sparkles and all kinds of finishes – but never white, until now. Channel your inner go-go dancer while keeping your style modern in this all white, high ankle-cropped boot perfect for night and day.

View all our corn leather products | About Zette Shoes


Author bio: Emma Hakansson is the founding director of Collective Fashion Justice, and the author of How Veganism Can Save Us

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