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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Meet the Innovators Hell-Bent for Plant-Based Leather

While companies such as Amadou and MycoWorks are charging ahead with mushroom-based leather, here we see the material made from eggplant, cacti and apples — and taking a bite out of food waste at the same time.

Conventional leather production is rife with environmental issues — including rampant deforestation, toxic chemical use, and the unsustainable draining of land and water resources inherent in raising cattle. Here are some of the latest innovators finding creative solutions to two of our most environmentally damaging industries: food and textile production.

Chef creates sustainable leather from eggplant skins

Image credit: Omar Sartawi/Instagram

Jordanian chef Omar Sartawi is transforming otherwise wasted eggplant skins into a timely and fashionable commodity: sustainable face masks. Sartawi salts, dehydrates and cooks the eggplant skins, so they become a richly textured, durable, leather-like — but breathable — material. When finished properly, he says the material can last for two to three years.

As Sartawi explains in the video: “There’s an ongoing trend toward sustainable luxury; so I thought, why not create leather using the eggplant peel – preserving the eggplant. Instead of throwing out these peels, we can recycle them and use them for fashion, for several things. So, I started developing it.”

The chef works with Jordanian designers Salam Dajani and Nejla Asem to finish and bedazzle the masks, respectively. The masks appeared last month at Jordan Fashion Week, as part of its Born Again campaign — featuring a series of sustainable face masks made by local female artisans.

Sartawi told The National that he envisions rescuing leftover eggplant from hotels and restaurants to create the leather, and divert food waste, on a larger scale.

“There is so much we can do with things that people do not even think about," he said. "If we could start collecting all of this wasted food and turn it into clothes for the less fortunate, so much could change.”

Sartawi also said he plans to open-source his method for creating the material, so that people around the world can replicate it at home and do their part to eliminate food waste.

Add cacti to the world’s ‘most versatile plants’ list

Image credit: Desserto/Instagram

Nopales (cacti) are not only the most abundant plant in Mexico — their cultivation offers a number of climate benefits: They don’t require a lot of water to grow, they sequester CO2 and regenerate quickly (only mature leaves are trimmed from the plant to make the leather). And some varieties are even being put to use as a source of renewable energy.

Now, the plant offers yet another marketable alternative to conventional leather — thanks to Mexican entrepreneurs Adrian López Velarde and Marte Cázarez, co-founders of startup Adriano Di Marti — a company that would develop the nopal-based, vegan leather, Desserto. Velarde had worked with leather in the auto industry and Cázarez worked with it in fashion, so they were both aware of the environmental impact of the ubiquitous material. Compelled to find a better alternative, the two left their respective jobs and joined forces — after two years of R&D, the team launched the durable, breathable, biodegradable cactus leather in July 2019 and showcased it in October 2019 in Milan.

According to designboom, once the leaves are cut, they are dried under the sun for three days until the desired humidity levels are achieved. The organic raw material is then processed and mixed with non-toxic chemicals, and shaped into any texture and color. The ranch from which the company sources the cacti is fully organic, and all cactus materials that aren’t used are sold nationally to the food industry.

The team says the material lasts up to 10 years and is cost-competitive with conventional leather. Desserto won the sustainability award at Monte Carlo Fashion Week in May, and was a finalist in the 2020 LVMH Innovation Awards this week.

Danish startup to fashion industry: ‘How do you like these apples?’

Image credit: Beyond Leather Materials/Instagram

Meanwhile, Copenhagen-based Beyond Leather Materials is on a mission to make waste beautiful — as a B2B supplier of a biodegradable, leather-like textile made from apple pulp, a byproduct from juice and cider production. 

While it’s not the first company to create leather from fruit waste, it is now poised to scale: The startup, founded in 2016, recently landed a €1.1 million seed investment round — which will help the company enter the €70 billion leather supplier market this year and start to provide its material to the fashion industry.

“[Beyond Leather Materials] have invented a unique patent-pending solution which solves a huge environmental problem caused by the production processes involved in producing animal leather,” says lead investor Steen Ulf Jensen. “The massive inbound interest in Beyond Leather Materials’ first product proves to me they are creating real value for both the fashion industry and increasingly conscious consumers.”