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Plant-based leather might open doors for Rwanda

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THE NEW TIMES 20 FEB 2020

If you are vegan, or contemplating a vegan lifestyle, chances are that you don’t want to own or wear any animal products, which includes leather. Unfortunately, “vegan leather” does not always tick the eco-friendly box, but the fashion industry is driving innovations that promise sustainable, plant-based alternatives to leather. Some of these could even provide opportunities for tropical fruit producing farming communities. Could the increasing popularity of plant-based leather prove to be a win-win investment for Rwanda?

There can be more than one reason to explore alternatives to animal leather besides animal cruelty. 

Most types of animal leather traditionally go through a chemical process of tanning that is hazardous to the environment and to the health of factory workers.  Faux- leather (or pleather) has been around since the 1960s.

It is made of polyvinylchloride (PVC) and is still used widely today, but the quality of the material just never lived up to the real thing. Remember, your bare legs sticking to your auntie’s faux-leather couch? Furthermore, there are concerns about toxins associated with PVC when it heats up. 

A more modern way to make faux-leather is with polyurethane (PU), which is currently very popular on the “vegan fashion” scene.  Both types of faux-leather are completely animal-free. But that doesn’t automatically mean it’s an environmental or sustainable solution. As they are both plastic-based, they may not be the eco-friendliest choice. 

The term “vegan leather” is prone to considerable greenwashing by brands.

When Tesla advertises its “vegan leather” upholstery as an ethical choice, and it is plastic-based, aren’t they misleading their customers, who turn to Tesla for environmental purposes, not because they are vegan?  

Given the fact, that many fashion brands are tooting their horn regarding “vegan leather” while more often than not using PVC or PU leather, maybe we should cast aside the term “vegan” and introduce the term sustainable, bio-fabricated or plant-based -alternative leather instead.  

Awareness of impact on people, animals, and the planet are currently driving innovation in the textile sector.

Start-ups are experimenting with fabrics that resemble leather but are made of plant-based materials or created from scratch in a laboratory using bio-material.

We now see “leather” experiments made of sources like pineapple fiber (Piñatex), fermented coconut water (Malai), apple peel (The Apple Girl), leftover fruits (Fruitleather), mushrooms (Muskin, Mylo and Mycoworks) and bio-material (Modern Meadow).

People are even creating sustainable vegan leather from a scoby, that slimy bacteria blob that ferments kombucha.  When dried, it will take on a leather-like texture that can be used to make clothing or shoes, as Suzanna Lee, the Chief Creative Officer of Modern Meadows explains in her Ted-talk,  “How to grow your own clothes” . 

All these innovations are currently in different stages of development and testing. The strongest player, pineapple leaf fiber textile Piñatex, is already making waves in the fashion industry.

Piñatex is the brain-child of Spanish designer Dr Carmen Hijosa. After working in the leather industry, Dr Hijosa went on a quest for a cruelty-free alternative to animal hide that was also planet-friendly. While visiting the Philippines, she learned that local women wore shirts made from the pineapple leaf fibers that were left over after harvesting. She brought the idea home and after many years of research, Piñatex was born. 

The sturdy fibers of the pineapple leaves can be transformed to make a fabric that feels like cowhide, is water tight, light-weight, and very durable.

Even though the material is 100% biodegradable, the coating resins as such are not yet so and the company is currently experimenting with bio-based coating to make its product completely sustainable. Since pineapple leaves are a by-product of pineapples, no extra resources such as water or land are needed. 

Piñatex is used by fashion-forward designers all over the world, but so far only three designers on the continent of Africa are using it. Two fashion labels in South Africa and Kigali-based Dokmai Rwanda. The latter recently  launched a collection of alternative leather accessories using the innovative pineapple fiber fabric.

Asked what gave her the idea to use sustainable alternative leather, Dokmai Rwanda founder and creative director Bernadette Umunyana explains:

“Customers walked into my store and told me they really liked my designs, but they did not like leather made of animal products. This triggered me to start researching alternative options.”  Umunyana contacted Piñatex and experimented with samples of the fabric. The “vegan” collection that she recently launched as a result has been well received.  Later this month, she will add new designs to this collection in more colors like canela, pebble and indigo, remaining true to the distinctive Dokmai signature of “leather” blended with African kitenge.  

According to Umunyana there is no significant difference in handling Piñatex and her leather workers can easily create fashionable handbags respecting the same quality norms Dokmai applies for its leather products.

“However, I have to say that with regards to longevity,  nothing yet can match top grain leather”, she adds. 

Umunyana’s interest in the alternative leather developments are not primarily from a vegan perspective, but because she and her company adhere to principles of women empowerment, Fair Trade and social and environmental responsibility. 

Investment Opportunity

A number of established, new and niche brands like Bourgeois Boheme, Birkenstocks, Toms, Hugo Boss and H&M have introduced plant-based leather into their collections, targeting an environmentally conscious audience. Plant-based fashion has also been promoted by celebrities like Madonna and Emma Thompson. 

”Unfortunately, I have to import the source material from Europe, which makes it expensive. It would have been better if the product were created here in Rwanda. We are after all,  a pineapple producing country, so this could be a real opportunity.”

Umunyana has a point here.

The leather (products) industry plays a prominent role in the world’s economy, with an estimated global trade value of USD 100 billion per year [UNIDO]. With the declining consumption of meat in the developed world and growing popularity of “vegan fashion”, the global synthetic leather market is expected to reach USD 45.41 billion by 2025, according to a study by Grand View Research. 

Isn’t it a matter of time that sustainable alternative leather takes a bigger piece of that pleather pie?  Many of the plant-based leather innovations can be made of waste from the (tropical) food industry, providing more opportunities for local farming communities with the harvesting of pineapples and other fruits. 

Who knows, this could prove to be a future win-win investment for Rwanda.

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