Cork - The sustainable zero-waste alternative to leather

June 13, 2017

Cork is a sustainable and vegan alternative to leather

Often called a natural leather, cork is plant tissue sustainably harvested from the cork oak tree. The eco-friendly material is a renewable resource, as cork trees can be harvested every 9 to 12 years for an average of 150 years. The material is natural, recyclable and biodegradable. The method of traditional cork harvesting has a low carbon footprint, as expert craftsmen, the descortiçadores, skillfully remove the outer layer of bark with axes, taking care not to injure the trees.

Cork harvesting is not new; traces of it have been found dating back to 400 BC, used for sandal soles and storage. In the 17th century a Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon, used cork to seal bottles of his now famous champagne.  While today the number one use of cork bark is to preserve/mature wine — wine stoppers account for 72 percent of total exports, mostly to France — there is increasing growth of its use in house construction and decoration, and growing potential in the fashion, jewelry markets.

If you happen to mention cork in fashion circles, immediately thoughts fly to comfy cork-bottomed Birkenstock sandals, which have been around since the 19th century, or sky-high Kork Ease sandals, which graced the feet of disco queens at Studio 54 in the 1970’s. Cork as a fabric for dresses, moto-style jackets and hats? This is something more recent. So are cork sunglasses, umbrellas and yoga mats. See how fashion designers are taking cork to the next level with exquisite detailing in Terial's moto jacket and experimental lasering in designer Klara Plaskova's skirts

Cork’s popularity in fashion increases considerably as eco-minded people explore ways to produce necessities and accessories more sustainably. And it doesn’t hurt that cork is velvety soft, lightweight (50 percent of its volume is air), impermeable to liquid (thereby resistant to dampness and staining), compressible, hypoallergenic, and tear-resistant. In fact, it’s nicknamed “golden bark” because of its special qualities and increasing popularity.


On top of these unique characteristics, cork is a great vegan alternative to leather. Supple and strong like leather, “cork-leather” is a great material choice for bags, wallets and belts. Unlike leather though, it doesn’t need to be conditioned, and can be cleaned easily with soap and water on a damp cloth. 

“People [often] have a misconception on the durability of cork,” says Elizabeth Roque, CEO of Rok Cork. “And that reason being because they have probably been exposed to cork quality that was less than par. Our cork, for example, has an extended durability and behaves like leather, [and] with time it builds this soft patina texture just like leather does. But that’s because we wait the 45 years … if you use cork that was harvested around 35 years, it still is not quality wise fully formed.”

Synthetic cork is also on the market. The quality is poor, and unfortunately, it gives cork a bad reputation.

Rok Cork handcrafts its products in Portugal, each item unique as the the cork bark itself. Here are two of our favorite items from the latest line:


While the high quality and sustainability of cork material is enough in itself, it is heartening to know that cork harvesting maintains and supports an ancient forest/pastoral ecosystem, which in itself encourages the growth and maintenance of oak tree forests, benefiting the environment, as well as the people whose livelihoods depend on cork production. Portugal is the main source of cork, generating 49 percent of it, or around 100,000 tons out of the 201,000 tons generated worldwide. Aside from those who own the cork farms, and the harvesters, 9,000 people work in 637 cork producing factories in Portugal alone. Part of Portugal’s success can be contributed to an early adoption of rigid protective measures in the growth and manufacturing of cork. Other countries like Algeria and Tunisia did not practice such rigorous protection, resulting in near deforestation. An effort has been made to replant the cork forests in these regions. Cork oak trees also grow in Spain, the south of France, the west coast of Italy, and Morocco, plus on the islands of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia.

 For more information about cork trees, and how cork is processed:

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