Mayura Davda first came across fish leather when she visited Iceland in 2015. “I stumbled upon this beautiful material and immediately fell in love with it,” recalls the Mumbai-based founder and creative director of MAYU, a luxury brand. Started in December 2018, MAYU creates bags, wallets and laptop sleeves from the skin of wolffish and salmon. The brand also offers vegan alternatives in Piñatex, a textile made of pineapple leaves developed in the 1990s.
Davda is one of several Indian designers crafting products from unusual fibres, including those derived from banana stems, pineapple leaves, mycelium or soybean. In 2017, designer Ritu Kumar introduced a line of soy and banana yarn saris “to continuously expand the horizons for innovative and sustainable solutions”, says Amrish Kumar, managing director of the brand. Gujarat-based Bhu:sattva makes fabrics out of milk protein, aloe vera, soy, banana and pineapple fibre. Delhi-based Escaro Royale makes footwear, bags and accessories out of pea and mushroom leather. Then there is Samatvam Pure, a leisurewear line launched recently by the Delhi-based Samatvam label, which uses fibres from banana, orange, aloe vera and eucalyptus and Cherthala-based Malai that offers leather alternatives created out of bacterial cellulose in coconut water.
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Outlandish as some of the options may sound—almost all with sustainability, that oft-bandied word, as their USP—manufacturers and designers believe the market for such products is growing exponentially. The past year and a half have seen a surge in awareness, says Davda.“I have seen a growth of nearly 20% since the pandemic began.”
So is fashion out of food the next big thing? It could be—but it will take time to scale this niche market, currently wrestling with issues of technology, price and design. Certainly, mindsets among both consumers and brands are changing as the fashion industry takes flak for being the most polluting industry after oil.
Going by most accounts, consumers for these brands are relatively young—Gen Z and millennials, more socially aware and worried by the threats to the planet. “Together, these cohorts represent around $350 billion (around ₹25 trillion) of spending power in the United States alone,” notes a 12 February report published by management consulting firm McKinsey, pointing out that younger consumers are seriously concerned about social and environmental issues. “They increasingly back their beliefs with their shopping habits, favouring brands that are aligned with their values and avoiding those that don’t,” it adds.
Admittedly, the idea of circularity has been around for centuries. “This was once a way of life for us,” says M. Vasantha, chairperson, textile design department, National Institute of Fashion Technology. There is evidence, for instance, that banana fibre has existed since the 13th century and fish leather for 5,000 years.
The textile industry began changing with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century and the invention of synthetics, to the more recent introduction of genetically modified cotton. The fashion industry’s impact today is well-documented: the chemicals used in dyes or for cultivating cotton that percolate into rivers; the amount of water used; the plasticky microfibres that drift into the oceans and poison the fish; the piles of cheap garments clogging landfills; the carbon emitted in the manufacture of clothes; the soil and rainforests destroyed.
Brands know the risks of a backlash. Today, even fast-fashion behemoth H&M has a “Conscious Collection” offering clothes made of sustainably sourced and eco-friendly materials. “It has become very trendy (for brands) to use the word sustainability,” says Vasantha. But since the supply chain is fragmented, what sustainability really means is often not clear, noted Saskia Hedrich, senior expert, apparel, fashion & luxury, at McKinsey, in an October 2019 article published on CNN’s website.
Products in the alternative space still feel like a wokey, niche option for the relatively well-heeled. Price is a significant concern; “ethical” fashion products can cost 5-10 times more. A MAYU bag, for instance, could go up to ₹50,000, at least five times more than the average leather bag. Sizing and design continue to be limited; many “sustainable” brands, for instance, stop at XL. Effectively, then, the use of alternative fibres is limited either to the high-end luxury segment or specific traditional trends, “thereby not making a significant dent in overall fashion space”, says Vivek Adhia, India country director of the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), an international non-profit.
Change is, however, on the way. A July report from the ISC, World Resources Institute India and Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands, funded by the Amsterdam-headquartered Laudes Foundation, says it may soon be possible to produce textile fibres at scale using agricultural waste and residue.
Jothi Kanayalal, innovation associate at Fashion for Good, a platform for sustainable fashion innovation, says most such technologies are both niche and nascent. But she believes this will change soon, given the conversation and mounting regulatory pressure worldwide. It’s the right moment to scale commercially, says Adhia. “We need to get down on the ground, at the field level, implement a few pilots and design the system right,” he says. He highlights two factors that will determine the large-scale adoption of fabrics made from agro-residues: adaptability plus robustness of the technology and on-ground collaborations that drive economies of scale.
Honing materials is an ongoing process. For instance, bast fibres from banana, pineapple, rice straws, hemp, etc., have less hemicellulose and more lignin, making them rough and difficult to process on conventional machinery, says Kanayalal. Ahmedabad-based AltMat has come up with a trademark process to soften these fibres and blend them with organic cotton or lyocell, resulting in a versatile fibre that’s between cotton and linen in texture, says the founder, Shikha Shah.
Since such fabrics carry extensive research and technology costs at present, Samatvam’s Anjali Bhaskar believes they will hold on to their luxury tag for a few more years. As production increases, so too will demand, improving accessibility. Shah, for instance, is aiming for a price range somewhere between silk/merino and cotton, “close to high-quality linen”. Davda adds, “There is no better time in our world than now for maximising the use of waste of any kind.”