Cork, the eco-textile

Green Lifestyle

With leather not only bad for the animal (obviously!) but the processing so damaging to the environment, cork is a shining beacon as a new sustainable textile to take its place.


Cork bag from www.havetohave.com.au

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It can be tough sometimes being an ethical and eco-minded shopper. Wading through the pesticide-heavy cotton, unethically produced cheap and fast fashion, and toxic and cruelly-produced leather, options can often present themselves as limited. But there’s hope. Making its way into fashion and home décor circles as a viable alternative to leather, cork has a look and feel similar to nubuck or suede.

Touted as nature’s own leather, cork has many advantages over the animal hide variety. Aside from the very obvious and evidently very important factor of being cruelty free, it is the ultimate eco-fabric with a list of qualities that seem almost to good to be true. Carlo Rebecchi of Suberis in Italy whose materials have been used by the likes of Salvatore Ferragamo believes that cork “will have an important place in fashion and fashion accessories”. He says, “this is easy to understand when we analyse the characteristics of the product”.

And here’s why: 100 per cent natural, and made from a renewable source, cork is fully recyclable. It is durable, lasting for around 20 years without signs of deterioration, and is resilient to scratches. Cork is waterproof, fire-resistant and flame retardant. It is insulating, hypoallergenic, stain resistant and dirt repellent. It doesn’t fade and is not marked by water. Some companies are even making fabric that is machine washable – try doing that with leather.

Cork is harvested by removing the bark from cork oaks that are native to the Mediterranean region. The trees are unharmed by this process and can provide a ‘crop’ of cork every nine years for as many as 300 years. Cork oaks are said to retain 30 per cent more CO2 than other trees, so rather than adding to environmental woes like most materials, growing and harvesting cork is actually beneficial. The trees also protect the soil by reducing erosion and desertification, and in some ecosystems they are helping to provide habitat for endangered species.

Unlike the chemical-heavy processing of leather, which causes excessive pollution and is incredible toxicity to the environment and to those unfortunate to work in the tanning industry, processing cork is chemical-free. After the cork bark is harvested, it is stacked and air-dried in the open for six months. It is then boiled and steamed to make it more elastic. Heat and high pressure is used to press cork into thick blocks that are later sliced into thin sheets that can be made into a multitude of products. Nothing toxic involved. Handbags, wallets, luggage, shoes, umbrellas, fabric and upholstery are all making their way onto the market cleverly crafted from cork.  

But don’t think that the only benefits of cork lie in its green credentials. It is also a beautiful material that you would be happy to use in its own right. It is soft to the touch and feather light but still virtually indestructible. The grain from the cork bark also provides beautiful and unique patterns that enhance each item and natural dyes can be used to produce a variety of lovely colours. According to Ana Catarina Matos from Portuguese company Pelcor, “each cork piece is a unique article. Due to its nature, cork skin is irregular and its texture and tone are impossible to reproduce. Like everything in nature no two are exactly alike.”

As a new product cork fabric and products are not yet widely available in Australia, but with luck, awareness and demand this should change. Try www.havetohave.com.au (for the bag pictured on the right), www.corkleather.com.au, www.pelcor.pt and www.suberis.it.