Two years ago, a pair of entrepreneurs who were avid scuba divers and childhood friends, co-founded Inversa Leathers to introduce new skins from species onto the fashion market. Their launch flew in the face of industry efforts to move away from using fur and other skins in the same year that brands such as Stella McCartney, Adidas and Gucci parent company Kering were developing animal friendly alternatives to leather from mushroom-based fibers. Yet just two weeks ago, these co-founders, Aarav Chavda and Roland Salatino, were named in Forbes 30 under 30 list while their company received an injection of 500,000 dollars from Conservation International Ventures. FashionUnited spoke to them to understand why leather is at the core of their sustainability goals.
“The sustainability question is one that plagued us long before we started Inversa,” says Salatino. "Not knowing what to believe or who to trust because of the greenwashing, the word has become so distorted.” So they moved away from the word and instead prefer to use “regenerative” to describe the material they say is environmentally responsible because it improves the planet and restores balance to rivers and reefs.
This material, the world’s first Invasive Leather, comes from lionfish, dragonfin and python from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi, and the Everglades respectively. The result of human error during the last half of the twentieth century, these species wound up displaced from their natural habitats, then reproduced at alarming rates to eventually cause a modern biodiversity crisis that overwhelms governments.
They say the argument that promoting the wearing of skins is problematic because it encourages consumers to view real leather as desirable again distracts from what’s really at stake. “It’s not a simple as animal skin is good or bad,” says Salatino. “It’s about what our planet actually needs.”
They believe they’re taking the guesswork out of it for consumers. On their website, right under the company name is the phrase Let fashion heal the planet. “When you can say this leather came from an invasive species that would have killed 50,000 native reef fish but it’s no longer doing that because it’s a shoe, how clearer can it be?” asks Salatino. “There’s no smoke and mirrors, no greenwashing. A predator is not destroying our ecosystem.”
Inversa founders say Invasive Leather beats vegan leather
With regards to the sustainability of vegan leathers and skin alternatives, Chavda plays what he refers to as the “Why Game” which means that he keeps asking why to each claim until eventually he says the responder can come up with no answer, which he puts down to a fuzziness around the details. “But anyone who really cares about the sustainability of their process, about building something responsible, is proud of that fact and knows the details,” he says. “We will sing to the high heavens about why regenerative is better because there’s so much confusion.”
Having passed through Harvard’s startup accelerator and raised 2 million dollars in funding the duo is ambitious. Their gaze exceeds beyond the industry goal of being net neutral. The founders note a tendency by members of the fashion industry to merely look for a less harmful alternative than a fabric’s predecessor which they believe is setting the bar too low. Their emphasis is on the positive impact a consumer can have. “You could buy a wallet that protects a coral reef,” says Chavda.
Their foray into luxury fashion was unintentional. They refer to themselves as conservationists first, their passion for the natural world originating in their love of scuba diving and rock climbing. Inversa is partnered with both the US Government, Conservation International, and other affiliations, and Chavda and Salatino are well versed in not only the threats to biodiversity but the socioeconomic damage caused by invasive species. “Invasives are one of the largest drivers of extinction events and we have to do something about it,” says Salatino. “Some of the Caribbean islands are decimated by lionfish and there are entire communities dependent on the ocean for food–– the grouper, snapper, lobster, are getting hoovered up by lion fish which fishers can’t sell, so they are being pushed out of their livelihood.”
I ask about the risk that their intervention could create a new manmade error. If they succeed in eliminating the lionfish, dragonfin or python, after having created a demand for the skins within the fashion industry, will they need to repopulate the waters possibly creating a new crisis? They laugh in delight, responding that they are unfortunately rarely asked these questions and relish elevating the conversation.
“Creating a demand would be a dream come true,” says Chavda. “Getting an elimination for conservationists is the holy grail. We’ve identified 4300 other species throughout the world that we would love to tackle, but at the moment we can work with 3.”
COP 15 biodiversity summit focuses on invasive species
COP 15, the UN biodiversity conference is currently happening in Quebec and one of the agenda items is around reaching agreement on curbing invasive species across the globe. This same urgency is what motivated Chavda and Salatino's entry into the fashion world.
Getting into the science behind it, there’s an invasive scale: Early Invasive means that governments can work towards potential elimination whereas Established Invasive means that the species is extremely pervasive, chances of elimination are low, and the approach becomes about management and keeping numbers below the density threshold. Inversa work with cooperatives to identify hundreds of hotspots where lionfish congregate. “It’s almost like weeding a garden. You have to keep doing it on rotation,” says Chavda, becoming enthusiastic as he describes the results. “The crazy thing is if you do it on a regular basis, you actually see life come back, or you can hear it before you even see it–– the snapping shrimp, when fish bite they make a sound which if you’re under water by the reefs is amplified and you hear it. The color becomes vibrant again in the corals.” He stops himself, sheepishly admitting that he can become very passionate on the topic.
“We never started with the question ‘What is the consumer asking for?’” says Chavda. “We started with ‘What does the planet need?’ But we had to turn to the consumer for their power.” He lists bluefish tuna, elephants, whales, all species that humans actually want to keep around but whose populations have been critically harmed due to consumer behavior. “Invasives operate at such densities they can’t be corraled, and governments even in the most developed nations are completely overwhelmed,” argues Salatino. “We know what the consumer machine is capable of. Why can’t we apply that consumer energy on the species that need to be kept in check?”