When I decided that I was going to use vegan leather to produce my products I researched what was available and cork was right at the top, once I took away the PVC and PU options.
I looked at the process that the cork goes through for the production of the leather and the environmental impact as well as the benefits. I also looked at where it comes from and is being produced and found that not only are there benefits to the harvesting of the cork oak to the environment and the surrounding vegetation, but that it did not require the cutting down of the cork oak tree or harm it. In fact the harvesting of the cork, was a benefit to the tree. This was a plus in my book and meant that I was definitely going to explore this leather alternative option further. I then looked at the properties of the cork as a material and found that it was hypoallergenic, flexible and could be as durable as leather. At this point I was sold. The beautiful natural markings in the leather also caught my attention and I have not regretted the choice. The leather is beautiful and so soft.
However, I hit a stumbling block when I went in search of a supplier. I had already decided that I would not be using Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or Polyurethane (PU) to make my products and was adamant about this, as although they are better for the environment than animal leather and cheaper, the time it takes for them to biodegrade in soil is very slow.
This decision meant that a lot of the cork out there I would not be able to use. Why? I found that a lot of cork being supplied had a PU coating or PU was used in the backing. Some might say that this was OK and to be honest it isn't that bad, because PU will breakdown quicker than PVC, it is only a thin layer and it has its benefits as a coating or backing. Such as the ability to make the materials being coated more abrasion resistant and durable as well as increase the weather resistance. That, however, was not enough of a reason for me to reconsider my position on PU, especially since the benefits were in my opinion things that the cork is capable of doing on its own naturally. I continued my search and found two suppliers that whilst not PU free, had options that had less PU in them. I am still on the hunt for the elusive PU free option, but for right now, I am happy with our cork supplier.
Where does the cork come from?
The cork leather comes from Portugal who according to APCOR (Associação Portuguesa da Cortiça (Portuguese Cork Association)) have the world’s largest area of cork oak montaodo. The climate within that part of the world is perfect for the growth and production of the cork. Visit the APCOR website to learn about what they do, but basically they are 'The voice of Cork'.
So how is the cork processed?
The cork oak is harvested from a tree once every 9 years, but the first harvest only takes place once the tree has matured enough. This stage of maturity is usually only achieved after 25 years of growth and from then on can be harvested for about 150 years, which amounts to about 15 harvests. However, each trunk has to reach a specific circumference and height above ground level before the cork will be harvested from it.
The harvesting of the cork is a very skilled and ancient process and is only done by those with the level of skill, knowledge and experience necessary to avoid any damage to the tree. These skilled men are known as descortiçadors.
The harvesting happens in six stages;
- Opening - This is the stage where the first cut is made with an axe to separate the outer bark from the inner bark.
- The separation - The axe is used to separate the cork bark from the inner bark allowing the extraction of cork strips.
- Dividing - A horizontal cut is made in the bark, and are used to determine the size of the cork plank to be extracted.
- Extracting - Care is taken to remove the plank from the tree, so as not to split it, how successful the descortiçador is depends on his level of skill.
- Removing - Once the planks have been removed the descortiçador will tap the base of the trunk with his axe to remove any parasites that may be present in the wedges.
- Marking - the cork oak tree is naked with the last number of the year in which it was harvested.
Rest period - There is at least a six month rest or seasoning period before the cork is used.
- Impermeable to liquids and gases
- Elastic and compressible
- Excellent thermal and acoustic insulator
- Slow burning, burns without a flame and does not emit toxins when burnt.
- Antistatic and anti-allergic - does not absorb dust and prevents the appearance of mites and, therefore, contributes to protection against allergies.
- Wear resistance - the honeycomb structure makes it resistant to wear.
"It is a 100% natural raw material, that is 100% reusable and 100% recyclable, extracted from cork oaks without harming the normal development of the species and without damaging the tree." APCOR.
What more is there to say than that.