Vegan Leather and the Need for Sustainable Fashion

So imagine this, you just bought a pair of expensive shoes a few months ago but now they’ve worn out and you have no other option but to buy a new pair.

Do you often feel the need to replace things, only because they get damaged easily? Well it isn’t you. Things are designed that way. They are made to be discarded. The “throw-away society” is a human society strongly influenced by consumerism. The term describes a critical view of overconsumption and excessive production of short-lived or disposable items over durable goods that can be repaired.

The most common model of manufacture of almost anything in the world, is a linear model. In such a model, raw material is sourced from the resource country, transported to a manufacturing unit, processed, and the final product is shipped to the sellers. The customer buys it, uses it, and finally discards it. This way about 99% of the stuff we buy, ends up in landfill. Every year, we humans dump 2.12 billion tonnes of waste.

One can clearly see the shortcomings of this system, while examining the textile and apparel industry.

The fashion industry contributes to 10% of the global greenhouse gas emissions due to its wide use of resources and energy intensive production. It is the second most polluting industry in the world. About 20,000 litres of water is used up in the production of a single t-shirt and a pair of jeans. The industry emits more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Globally, 80% of the discarded textiles are thrown into landfills and can take 200 years to fully decompose and as it decomposes, it emits methane — a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon.

Hence, the need of the hour is to move towards a circular model of production, wherein the products are designed in such a way that maximum portion of the discarded item can be retrieved, by recycling, refurbishing or repair. It works on the principles of sustainable design strategies, zero-waste design, product-life extension, resource recovery, repair and remanufacture services.

In the recent years, the talk on sustainability has gained traction and people have started taking conscious efforts to be mindful of the environment. Concepts like thrifting and buying second hand clothes are also gaining momentum. But greater change can be brought, if we change our ways of mass production and the “fast fashion” mentality.

New trends have brought up the topic of sustainable fabric. These can include either thoughtfully designed, good quality, material that can last long, or it can mean, using environment friendly materials such as hemp, bamboo, organic cotton, khadi etc.

Recently, fashion designers have started exploring the possibility of biodegradable textiles made out of materials like algae, mycelium, fungi, bacteria, etc., which would break down into nontoxic substances when eventually thrown away. The major benefit of these is that they can be grown in moulds and hence the designer grows only the amount of fabric that is required, which considerably reduces waste, right at the production level.

Biodegradable fabric samples

A lot of these materials can be locally sourced, and anyone can grow them, right in their homes.

One such material is SCOBY, which stands for ‘symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast’. It has an extremely simple production method, wherein sweet tea is fermented with kombucha (a fermented drink) and made to rest for about 3–4 weeks. Due to the presence of bacteria and yeast, a layer starts to develop on the top, which is taken out and upon drying, it resembles leather and has great strength.

MY EXPERIMENTS WITH SCOBY

It is 100% vegan, biodegradable, customisable and economic.

Organic dyes are commonly used to dye it, hence making it entirely free of toxic chemicals.

New York based fashion designer Suzanne Lee, the director of The BioCouture research project, has been actively working towards making sustainable fabric, out of kombucha. She uses microbial cellulose (composed of millions of tiny bacteria grown in bathtubs of sweet green tea) to produce clothing. The idea is to grow a dress in a vat of liquid.

BioCouture, Suzanne Lee

With the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen thousands of people lose their jobs. A vast chunk of these people are the local vendors, artisans, craftsmen, weavers, tailors and small businesses. Going “vocal for local” holds immense importance during such times and it comes with a list of benefits, for everyone involved. Primarily, it pays the workers and funds their basic needs.

Secondly, local, handwoven textile is a great shift from the mass produced ‘fast fashion’ and clothes produced this way enrich ones wardrobe culturally.

Fashion is a consumer driven industry, and it is our responsibility to be mindful consumers and rethinking our impact on the earth and its ever depleting resources. The desire for new clothes may be impossible to combat. But the least we can do is make sure we buy clothes that are long lasting, ethically sourced and sustainable.

An enthusiast of all things art, design, literature, poetry and history!