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Inversa: the company hoping to build back the coral reef through leather production

By Rachel Douglass

Jun 17, 2022

Business |Interview

Image: Inversa

Next Generation materials, a term often used for sustainable and ethical fibre alternatives, can quite often come from surprising natural elements - ones that are right under our noses but have not yet been explored to their full extent. Many materials in the Next Gen space revolve around the axing of animal-based products, something the fashion world is increasingly turning towards. However, Inversa is hoping its own alternative appeals to clients based on its ability to solve an increasingly worrisome problem.

Inversa’s exotic leather is made from lionfish, a highly invasive species causing significant damage to the coral reef and biodiversity, particularly on the coast of Florida in the Atlantic waters. The company, which was most recently selected as the finalist for the Ocean Resilience Innovation Challenge grant by the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance (ORRAA), initially launched as a food supplier for restaurants. However, in order to pay divers a premium on their lionfish harvest, the team expanded into leather production, something they hope will keep growing within the fashion industry.

The start-up has already launched partnerships with a number of brands, including Teton Leather Company, for which it provides lionfish leather for the likes of clutches and watches, and P448, an Italian footwear brand that it has worked together with on sustainable leather shoes.

Now, Inversa is hoping its story will resonate with more global brands in order to achieve its goal of building the coral reef back better by removing more of this bothersome species. FashionUnited spoke with three members of the Inversa team, co-founders CEO Aarav Chavda and COO Roland Salatino and CMO Deepika Nagarajan, to find out more about the lionfish issue and the company’s plan to save the oceans around Florida, its home base.

The lionfish dilemma

The team, who are all scuba divers themselves, have spoken in detail about the rapidly declining quality of coral reefs, something they have had to witness first hand. “The lion fish, in particular, are such a problem,” Chavda stressed. “We watched the reef slowly die out, year over year, and it got to a point where I called up Roland and said we have got to do something about this.”

Many organisations have cited that the species’ existence in Floridian waters is most likely down to humans releasing the breed into the wild, either by accident or from home aquariums. The problems that have emanated from the fish itself come from it not having any natural predators, leaving it free to mate at a rapid speed and kill up to 79 percent of young marine life within five weeks of entering the system, resulting in an overgrown reef that is left to die.

Image: Inversa

“We saw lots of nonprofits and government organisations coming into play to try and help, but we all know the power of the consumer to change and create the world they want to see” Chavda noted. “We wanted to make a way of producing new leather material such that we can tap into that power of the consumer and they can, in turn, heal the planet on their own terms.”

The process of using fish for leather is often considered to have originated from indigenous practices and, while the company doesn’t use traditional resources and chemicals in its process, Chavda did state it was the root for which the Inversa concept stemmed from. “It was sort of the spark for the idea,” he said, “it is where we have done a lot of research.”

Regenerative from start to finish

Inversa prides itself on its near to net-zero production process, which COO Roland Salatino said starts with the value principle of being completely regenerative, from start to finish. “That goes for everything, including the way we get the lionfish, which is absolutely zero by-catch,” Salatino emphasised. “The divers we are working with are only getting lionfish, there is nothing else being caught up in this process at all – which is very hard for any other industry to say right now”.

The company is also intentional in its tanning method, using less than 200 millilitres of water per skin, as well as its dying and finishing of the material. “It is all with the idea that this is a product that should leave the planet better for using it and creating it,” Salatino added.

The final material is very thin and therefore extremely versatile and flexible, allowing for it to be utilised in many different applications. Past and current clients have implemented the leather into the likes of clutches, watches and wallets among other areas of fashion accessories.

Image: Inversa

“That is one of the points of feedback that we have consistently received from our customers – that they are really excited about how manipulable our leather is,” Nagarajan, CMO, said. “Typically, exotics can work against you because they are so stiff and heavy, while this has all the benefits of an exotic – the high texture, the beautiful look – but it is so malleable that you can use it for a variety of products.”

In fact, according to the team, client responses have been positive all round, with many said to be just as enthusiastic about the concept as they are. “At the end of the day, it is such a human experience,” commented Nagarajan. “What we are really creating here is about standing together to build back the coral reefs. This is the first time you can tangibly hold something and say the world is better off because this is here. That story has been resonating really well.”

Public response

While the enthusiasm from the team can be infectious, they also understand the hesitancy that can come with the adoption of this product, especially as many brands and shoppers are beginning to turn away from animal-based materials.

However, despite animal rights organisations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recognising the drastic problems invasives cause, it is often that there are only a limited number of solutions on how to tackle the issue at hand.

In response to FashionUnited’s query about the topic, PETA’s director of corporate projects, Yvonne Taylor, said that there was no exception to use any animal skin for a product, noting that it was “even more preposterous when you consider that humans are believed to be entirely responsible for the existence of the lionfish population in Florida”. Taylor added that we have a duty to find a humane solution to the problem that does not involve using spear guns.

In spite of the uncertainty, the Inversa team have stuck closely to their message of only creating a positive change to the environment, while still recognising that it is a material that will not appeal to everyone. Nagarajan emphasised: “At the crux of what we’re doing, it is an animal-based product but we are preserving animal biodiversity. So, in that sense, we are advocating for the native life on the reef. That’s why we are doing all of this, because we want to preserve this into the future.”

To stay in the loop with ethical and sustainable practices, Inversa has partnered with a number of nonprofits and organisations, many of which are Florida-based, as well as advisors in the marine biology community, allowing the team to mobilise a continuous stream of advice and feedback on the extent of damage and how they can mitigate some semblance of control.

Image: Inversa

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) are among those that have worked closely with Inversa. The organisation, which started its partnership with the leather company in early 2021, hosts regular lionfish tournaments, for which Inversa is a buyer and sponsor for, incentivising divers to remove the invasive species. Speaking to the organisation’s coastal resource manager, Alex Fogg, FashionUnited gained more understanding on the breed’s impact and the pivotal need to remove it swiftly from the food chain.

Fogg detailed lionfish’s tendency to directly prey on or compete with other species of fish, including commercially important breeds or ones that keep the reef clean. While lionfish themselves cannot be considered the main culprit of the coral reef’s collapse or the decline in fisheries, Fogg did say they still had a heavy impact on these issues. Yet, regardless of the benefits of harvesting this threatening species, Fogg noted that criticism towards their capture was still very much present.

“There have been plenty of instances where people have questioned why we are harvesting these fish,” Fogg said. “What it comes down to is either a lack of knowledge or understanding about the impact and why lionfish are an invasive species. But after having a conversation and providing some context, their attitude certainly changes. They may still be against eating the fish but they aren’t opposed to the fish being harvested.”

Speaking on the harvesting process, Fogg added: “There are a lot of opportunities for divers to go out and catch lionfish, bring them back, help the ecosystem and fund their diving hobbies. It provides a very sustainable option for restaurants and a cool story for a leather product.”

Future endeavours

While the Inversa team expressed its excitement for a number of long-term partnerships down the pipeline, it also hinted at the possibility of expanding its process to address other invasive species ravaging different parts of the world. “The lionfish is a huge problem and it is one of the most famous, but it is only one of thousands of other invasives that are destroying ecosystems around the planet,” Chavda said. “We are always trying to push ourselves, push our process, push our waste water and our energy. We are really excited to also migrate our primary tan to a biobased tanning agent.”

Nagarajan seconded Chavda’s enthusiasm, noting that the time for a manufacturer of such calibre was good as the industry continues to turn more and more towards sustainable materials. “People recognise that leather as a whole category needs alternatives and,now, they are also starting to specifically zone in on exotic leather and realise that it needs a very different type of alternative. That is exactly the space we play in,” she said.

Additionally, the Inversa team also revealed it was planning to expand on initiatives alongside its partner the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an American scientific and regulatory agency and a leader in countering lionfish and other invasive species. While the team is already working with the organisation on business development and an incentive programme, it added that there was more news to come alongside NOAA in the future – another way it hopes to continue bringing its message to a wider audience.

“In this world, while everyone is really striving to find leather alternatives that feed a ‘less-than’ mindset and where they eventually might even get to net-neutral, for which I really applaud all those taking the strides in that direction, we are going towards a material that goes beyond net-neutral and is instead net-positive. That is something we are very proud of,” Salatino concluded.

Image: Inversa
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