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Plant based leather has arrived

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By Maneka Gandhi

I am hopeful that, in my lifetime, I am going to see a disruptive change in the eating and wearing of animal flesh. It is coming fast: the largest slaughter companies, and the largest investors in the world, have invested in laboratory created real meat (called clean meat) and milk. These meats are already in the market in countries like Singapore. Perfect Day, which makes milk cells, is on the market with yoghurt (under the label Smitten) that is made of animal free dairy. The Netherlands and Israel are far ahead in meat grown from in-vitro animals’ cell culture, instead of from slaughtered animals. Indeed, if clean meat would replace intensive farming as an industry standard, the benefits for the environment would be immense. As consumers, we would also have “cleaner” meat, meaning a product that doesn’t have the antibiotic residues and bacterial contamination that come with slaughtered meat. We would also save the lives of over 56 billion animals yearly. Yes, that’s the number of animals that are eaten every year by humans.

The meat industry keeps bringing out statistics, that vegans and vegetarians are still less than 5% of the market. That is simply not true. If it were, entire supermarket sections and fast food vendors would not be catering to them. Impossible Foods, which makes plant based meat, is one of the fastest growing companies in the world. Its current valuation is $4 Billion.

And the largest slaughterhouse companies in the world would not be investing in an alternative meat future.

Vegetarians and vegans finally have meat eaters on the run.

But the wearing of meat in the form of leather – has it gone down? Not yet. But it will.

Apart from the millions of animals that it kills every year, especially young calves, the leather industry is extremely dangerous for the Earth’s survival. The rivers are polluted with the toxic chemicals used in leather – leather polish alone kills millions of fish. A 2018 global impact study, by Quantis, stated that 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide are emitted by the leather footwear industry annually – a major reason for global warming.

The New Zealand shoe company, Allbirds, which is in partnership with the giant Adidas, has just announced that it is investing millions in plant based leather. Allbirds has been going this way for a long time: shoes made of eucalyptus and cotton fibre for instance, insoles made of castor bean oil, recycled plastic laces. This new material, plant leather, is made from vegetable oil, natural rubber and other bio inputs. The company announced their investment in a material innovation firm called Natural Fiber Welding, Inc. and says it will be adding “the world’s first 100% natural plant-based leather” to its product lineup by December 2021. This material, which is called Mirum, is said to have 40 times less carbon impact than real leather, and produces 17% less carbon than synthetic leather made from petroleum-based sources. Mirum will be constructed without any polyurethane, meaning that the material can biodegrade at the end of its life, without leaving traces of plastic in the soil, or it can be reground into new Mirum.

Joey Zwillinger, co-founder of Allbirds, said in a press release, “For too long, fashion companies have relied on dirty synthetics and unsustainable leather, prioritizing speed and cost over the environment. Natural Fiber Welding is creating scalable, sustainable antidotes to leather, and doing so with the potential for a game-changing 98% reduction in carbon emissions. Our partnership with NFW, and planned introduction of Plant Leather based on their technology, is an exciting step on our journey to eradicate animals and petroleum from the fashion industry.”

Vegan leather, an oxymoron, is the ethical and cruelty-free alternative to traditional leather. It is meant to look and feel like traditional leather, without the baggage of pollution and suffering. As more and more people grow aware of the leather industry’s effects on the environment and on animals, the market for cruelty-free alternatives keeps growing.

British materials company, Ananas Anam, set up in 2013, was among the first to come out with a plant-based leather alternative called Piñatex. The material uses fibres derived from pineapple leaves, sourced from the Philippines. These fibres are mixed with polylactic acid (PLA), a bioplastic derived from corn, to create a flexible and durable material. Piñatex is being used by Hugo Boss and Canadian brand Native Shoes.

Dutch designer Tjeerd Veenhoven has sourced his vegan leather from the leaves from the Areca Betel Nut (Supari). The Palmleather project was born as a low-cost plant-based replacement for animal leather, plastic and rubber, and uses far fewer pollutants and water consumption than animal leather.

The company, Desserto, has introduced vegan leather made from nopal cactus leaves, which can be used to make furniture and car interiors, wallets, purses, and shoes. The nopal cactus grows in abundance across Mexico without requiring any water, making it a low-impact crop.

Major luxury fashion houses including Stella McCartney, Adidas, and Gucci parent company Kering, have invested in a leather substitute product called Mylo, a soft leather like material, created from mycelium, the branching filament structure that mushrooms and other fungi use to grow. The material consumes substantially less water than is needed to produce animal leather, while emitting fewer greenhouse gases. It takes just days to produce and is completely biodegradable and non-toxic.

MusKin is a leather-like material made from the caps of a mushroom called Phellinus ellipsoideus. The fungus is native to subtropical forests and feeds on tree trunks.

Will’s Vegan Store is an online store that makes luxurious vegan leather shoes from cereal crops. The company’s vegan leather is made from a mix of polyurethane and bio-oil made from cereal crops. The company is trying to move away from using polyurethane, and recently rolled out a new product using viscose made from eucalyptus bark.

In 2017, the high-end vegan shoe company Veerah rolled out leather made from 50 percent apple peels leftover from the apple juice industry, and 50 percent polyurethane. The peels are dried and ground into a fine powder, which is then mixed with non-toxic pigment, and polyurethane, to become a leather-like fabric.

Here are the Indian entrepreneurs that you should buy from, or invest in:

Malai Biomaterials Design Pvt Ltd, a Kerala based initiative, is the brainchild of Zuzana Gombosova and Susmith Suseelan. It produces a vegan alternative to leather, using sustainable bacterial cellulose sourced from waste coconut, banana stem, sisal fibre and hemp fibre. It is completely biodegradable, flexible, water resistant stretchy and has the same thickness as leather.

The company collects coconuts from farmers in Kerala. The water is left undisturbed for bacterial culture to feed on. The end process results in jelly-like cellulose which is mixed with banana fibre, or gum, to create raw material in the form of sheets or 3-dimensional shapes. To make the sheets colourful and glossy, the company uses natural dyes such as indigo, madder or cutch.

The company’s major clients are prestigious companies like Crafting Plastics, TON, Ma-tt-er, Kazeto, and the products are bags, wallets, backpacks. I do not know whether they have started making shoes as yet.

Aulive is an online Indian brand that has genuinely beautiful vegan, cruelty-free leather products. It labels itself as “Genuinely Not Leather” and uses Pinatex. They have come out strongly against the cruelty, and toxicity, of the animal leather trade. Look up the site when you want to buy suitcases, briefcases and bags.

Kanpur Flower Cycling, owned by engineer Ankit Agarwal, has created Fleather, a leather made of temple flowers. Even though it’s not on the market yet, Fleather has already won a UN Sustainability Award and a PETA award for best innovation. The company has already been making Florafoam- a compostable alternative to styrofoam (non-biodegradable plastic) from moulding dried flowers with natural fungi. Brands, like Bajaj and Havells, are already using Florafoam packaging. Fashion houses, like Anita Dongre, have also shown interest in this breathable and tensile material called ‘Fleather’.

These companies can only be successful if you change your buying pattern.

(To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)