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Lionfish-derived leather alternative heals ecosystems

After witnessing how lionfish have devastated populations of Florida’s native tropical species, a team of diving enthusiasts figured out how to solve the problem: by inventing a new sustainable material.

In recent years, the fashion industry has faced increased pressure to become more eco-conscious. The ever-worsening climate crisis demands rapid, substantial change, and the pandemic has forced brands to halt their operations and reassess long-term priorities.

As a result, we’ve watched as designers and retailers alike have gradually come forward with solutions to a problem the sector is renowned for: its hugely damaging environmental impact.

From 3D-printed garments and fungi fabric to human hair textiles and shoes made from up-cycled coffee grounds, there’s been no shortage of innovative offerings as of late.

None of these, however, are quite so multi-faceted in their positive contributions as a newly discovered leather alternative that literally heals the ecosystem with its production.

Made from lionfish – an invasive species with no natural predators that efficiently kills up to 79% of young marine life within five weeks of entering a coral reef system, leaving it overgrown with algae and left to die – it’s successfully killing two birds (or should I say fish) with one stone.

The project is the brainchild of avid diver Aarav Chavda. Having witnessed lionfish decimate the Florida coastline, he wanted to create an original sustainable material that protected the surrounding biodiversity, which laid the foundations for Inversa.

Inversa was established with a team of fellow ecologically-aware scuba enthusiasts. Just last week it was recognised as a finalist in the Global Ocean Resilience Innovation Challenge.

‘You can see the impacts on the reefs when you dive now – it’s less vibrant, it’s less cacophonous,’ says Chavda, who stresses the importance of protecting them because coral reefs generate half the Earth’s oxygen and absorb nearly one-third of the carbon dioxide generated from burning fossil fuels.

‘We know there are solutions for some of the problems – such as coral-friendly sunscreens to help protect the reefs – but nobody’s been able to do anything about the lionfish.’

To make the leather, Inversa processes the fish hides by tanning them with drying agents and dying them.

It then sells the alternative onto partner businesses (all carefully vetted to ensure an ethical and zero plastic end-to-end supply chain) that turn it into high-end products including wallets, belts, watch-straps, footwear, and handbags.

Interestingly, while the skin itself is thin, the material is in fact stronger than many other types of leather because the fibre structure runs crossways.

‘Its high texture and durability make it a prime exotic leather alternative,’ adds Chavda.

‘Consumers can experience a beautiful texture and rugged durability, but most importantly, it is environmentally regenerative, and its use in fashion is actively beneficial for the coral reefs and the native biodiversity that depends on them.’

Each hide, according to Chavda, can save up to a whopping 70,000 native reef fish and is also more sustainable than traditional animal leathers, the manufacture of which degrades soils and produces high carbon emissions.

Oh, and it gets better, because driven by regenerative-focused initiatives, Inversa doesn’t actually hunt the lionfish, rather it relies on educating and encouraging largely poor fishermen and women in remote places to catch them.

‘A lot of the geographies, especially the lower-income Caribbean area, have no market at all [for lionfish] – and so this fish is not only destroying the coral reefs, which sustain these fishing cooperatives’ livelihoods, but they also can’t do anything about it,’ continues Chavda.

‘We’re really sort of empowering the consumer and fashion by doing something for the planet – then we empower dive communities in the fishing cooperatives all throughout the Caribbean to do something for themselves.’


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