From cork boards to cork bags—what is cork fabric and how is it being used in sustainable fashion?
When it comes to sustainable fabrics, our faves are those created by Mother Earth.
Think: organic cotton, hemp fabric, linen, and (depending on how it is sourced) ethical wool and ethical cashmere.
Now we’re turning to trees and some of our vetted textile producers, to explore what cork fabric is and its sustainable merit.
Sure, it comes from a tree, but how sustainable is cork and does it have a place in our ethical fashion wardrobes?
We’ll give you a hint: it’s often used as a vegan leather alternative and it can be harvested without killing the tree…
We’re ready to get to the bottom of which materials are sustainable, which, for this one, means taking a trip to Portugal (using the best carbon offset providers for our travel emissions, of course!).
No (fo)rest for the wicked as we dive into this trendy, tree-based material.
- What is Cork Fabric Made of?
- What is Cork Fabric Used For?
- Is Cork Eco Friendly?
- What is Cork Leather?
- How to Care for Cork Fabric?
- Brands Using Cork Leather
Let’s start with the basics: what is cork?
You might be well acquainted with it from your favorite bottle of Pinot Noir or perhaps the memo board to which you keep pinning all your endless to-do lists.
Cork has been used for thousands of years.
Much like modern wine corks, it was used as a stopper for bottles of liquid in the Middle Ages. While humans have been fascinated by the natural and very useful material for a long time, using it as a pliable fabric is relatively new.
Natural cork fabric, also known as cork leather, is made from shavings directly from the cork oak tree, or Quercus suber. The medium-sized, evergreen oak tree is native to northwest Africa and southwest Europe (Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, Algeria Tunisia, and Morocco).
The tree species is a unique and valuable one. It has dark grey bark that’s thick and knobby. Inside that is where “cork” is found.
Cork fabric starts with harvesting, where the outer section of the bark is peeled back to reveal the inner cork.
This can be done without harming the tree itself because the outer bark is able to regenerate itself! In fact, some have suggested that harvesting cork can actually extend its life.
Once it’s 25 years old, the cork can be harvested every 9 to 12 years without causing permanent damage to the bark. For the average cork oak (which can reach 200+ years old), 16 harvesting sessions can sustainably take place.
No machines are required to harvest the cork, either. A simple axe (like the ones used thousands of years ago) is all it takes.
After the cork is harvested, it’s laid out to dry for about six months. Then, the cork is boiled in water, flattened, and molded into whatever material it will be used for.
Typically, it’s rolled until extremely flat and thin, then supported by a fabric backing (usually cotton, polyester, or polyurethane).
Cork is used for all manner of things: cork flooring, insulation, cork stoppers for wine bottles, eco friendly yoga mats and blocks, and, increasingly, sustainable fashion products looking to trade animal hides for something vegan—like sustainable wallets, ethical handbags and purses, and sustainable shoes.
Cork’s main properties are the reason why it’s found in both wine bottles and wallets; it’s lightweight and relatively elastic. The spongy material floats, doesn’t burn, and is stain and scratch-resistant!
It also contains suberin, a wax-like material that repels water and contributes to cork’s durability as a material.
Not only can cork be harvested without harming the tree, but—especially compared with leather—its production is much less detrimental to our planet.
It doesn’t produce waste when being extracted or processed, nor does it contribute to air or water pollution.
It does produce some wastewater, but given that nothing is required to cure it (unlike chemicals like cyanide and chromium used in leather tanning), it can be returned back to the earth without causing damage.
Even when scrap cork is produced, it can be reused by other industries. If that doesn’t happen, it can be returned to the earth because it’s 100% biodegradable and compostable.
It can even be added to your compost bin!
To answer that question more deeply, consider the sustainability of the cork tree itself.
One of the main benefits of using cork, or most tree-based materials for that matter, is its ability to sequester (remove) CO2 from our atmosphere. With cork, harvesting keeps the tree intact, meaning it can continue sequestering carbon dioxide.
While regrowing its bark, it actually consumes more carbon than usual.
According to this study which examined cork wine stoppers, the amount of carbon sequestered was actually more than the emissions required to produce and transport the cork stoppers—and the wine bottle itself!
This means that a) Cork is usually a carbon-negative product; and b) In the case of the wine bottle, the use of cork reduced its total emissions (wine excluded) by up to 40%!
When we think of the sustainability of cork trees, it’s also important to consider the larger picture (i.e. its place in our world). Cork oaks grow within a mosaic of other tree species and in areas of the world known for having tremendous biodiversity.
In fact, Portugal’s cork forest (where more than half of the world’s cork is found) provides a home for the Iberian lynx, which, with a population of less than 500, is the world’s most critically endangered cat.
Speaking of endangered, biodiversity as a whole is under threat.
In addition to human-related deforestation and agricultural expansion, climate change is contributing to more fires, droughts, pests, and diseases—and this goes for cork oaks, too.
When cork oak forests are properly managed, we can harvest cork leather fabric in a way that preserves the trees themselves and biodiversity as a whole…there’s a but coming.
Cork forests are not always properly managed.
To put a stopper in unsustainable harvesting practices, we need to look for details about harvesting practices or, even better, a certification. The Rainforest Alliance has partnered with the Forest Stewardship Council to develop a certification scheme for cork oaks.
The question is cork endangered is just as complicated as, say, getting that stubborn cork wine stopper out.
On one side of the corkboard, we could consider alternative wine stoppers (made from synthetic materials and plastic compounds designed to “pop” like natural cork).
While this may seem like a good thing, there is some concern that reduced demand for cork oak trees might reduce their conservation rate and put the species as a whole at risk.
Not to mention that all those synthetic wine corks have a far less sustainable end-game than real cork.
Ironically, increasing demand for cork may help address a cork shortage. But, as with anything in nature, there’s a fine balance that can easily be crossed.
Increased demand for cork may prioritize cork oaks while contributing to a loss of other trees that grow in the same forests.
When other native trees aren’t as valuable (and therefore aren’t as protected), a whole range of other species (shrubby vegetations, rabbits, etc.) may also disappear.
Thus we come full circle to that same biodiversity loss we talked about earlier. Cork oak forests are incredibly biodiverse, but they won’t be if we rid them of everything except the cork trees.
Let’s get back to the question: is cork endangered?
No, it absolutely isn’t.
However, this doesn’t mean we should have a cork free-for-all, as it may cause other tree species (and related flora and fauna) to become endangered.
By now, you realize that cork leather is the same thing as cork fabric. In fact, we’re more likely to find cork leather in our favorite fashion accessories.
But why is cork fabric sustainable?
Cork fabric is 100% vegan, making it a great leather alternative—thus giving it one of its main sustainability benefits.
Cork fabric = cork leather and the process is 100% the same. No tanning, finishing, or additives required!
However, cork can sometimes be backed with unsustainable materials. Note that if your cork leather handbag is lined with PU, treated with a fabric protection spray, or dyed with a toxic dye, that will impact its biodegradability.
Just like any other fabric, dyes may be added to the cork leather. This can happen a few different ways, but the best is when natural plant-based dyes—typically blue, green, or brown—are added to the cork leather.
Unfortunately, toxic dyes may also be used to add color. Double-check with the brand or manufacturer to ensure that natural, plant-based dyes are used instead.
You may even find cork leather in its lovely, natural tan color.
How durable is cork leather?
Cork was the material of choice for science/shuttle-s-cork-from-portugal.html” target=”_blank” aria-label=” (opens in a new tab)” rel=”noreferrer noopener” class=”rank-math-link”>NASA’s space shuttle Columbia! 497 pounds from 225 trees were used to insulate the tank’s storage center for the super-cold liquid hydrogen and oxygen used to power the engine.
If NASA used it for a spacecraft, we think it’s safe to say that your printed cork fabric leather wallet can withstand the occasional drop and rummage in your bag.
In fact, it’s probably sturdy enough to last a lifetime, making it a Mother Earth-approved way to accessorize.
The best way you can care for your cork shoes or handbag is to keep it clean.
While it’s true that cork might get a little dirtier than leather—especially if it’s used daily—it’s a breeze (through the forest canopy) to clean it.
So how to clean cork?
Simply spot treat it using a damp cloth and gently rub it until the dirt or stain disappears.
For a larger mess (like when your organic lipstick cap comes off in your purse), find comfort in the fact that cork is totally waterproof and can be immersed in warm water for a gentle wash with (ideally) zero waste dish soap.
Leave out to air dry and you’re good to go!
Because of its durability, a cork bag or wallet *can* even be washed in the washing machine. However, we wouldn’t recommend it.
In the world of sustainable and ethical fashion, cork is in.
More and more brands are turning tail and running from environmentally cruel and inhumane animal leather for cruelty-free cork.
Here’s a little preview of some brands walking the cork runway:
- Stella McCartney has become a pretty big name in the world of vegan leather shoes and vegan handbags, some of which are made from cork!
- Bhava, Bahatika, and NAE are totally animal-free vegan shoe brands using cork, among other sustainable fabrics.
- Svala, tentree, and Matt & Nat are other cork connoisseurs, using them for their sustainable wallets.
- If a wallet alone doesn’t cut it, Carry Courage and HFS Collective create elegant eco friendly handbags out of cork.
Shall we pop a bottle of champagne to celebrate cork fabric?
We think so.
We’re pretty excited you’re barking up the right oak tree when it comes to this sustainable material. It removes carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, can be harmlessly harvested, and makes for a great animal-free alternative to leather.
However, it’s important not to get too carried away.
While shopping for materials like cork is a great way to avoid fast fashion, buying used is an even better one. If you’re in the market for a new wallet or purse, be sure to check out an online thrift store first.
Are you experiencing tre(e)mendous joy after discovering cork? Or were you aware of its uses beyond that classroom cork board all along?
If this relatively new and unique way to accessorize has sparked some sustainable fashion passion in you, be sure to spread the word!