From waste to fashion: The future of leather

More and more cutting-edge, functional, sustainable and surprisingly silky fabrics are emerging in the world of fashion, but with them comes more waste. What if we were to transform our plant and food waste into something wearable instead?

The fashion and textiles industry has been surprising consumers and designers with back-to-back announcements of innovative fabrics as of late. We've been astounded by Pinatex, made from fibers derived from pineapple leaves in the Philippines, Mylo, derived from mycelium or the vegetative part of a fungus in the U.S., and even Tomtex, crafted from discarded seafood shells and coffee grounds in Vietnam. While these are great, scalable leather and fabric alternatives, Turkey needs its own domestic solution, as sustainability in essence is working with what's around you. Enter Oleatex.

Vanguards of fashion

Oleatex, the Turkish brand creating plant-based leather, was founded by three men: Eşref Açık, Recep Eroğlu and Emre Eroğlu.

Eşref Açık, one of the founders of Oleago. (Courtesy of Oleago)

The trio is a winning combination for any business. Recep Eroğlu, the "loved and respected" chairperson of Rebil Group, a provider of labeling and packaging solutions, brought his knowledge of the market into this partnership. He was also the motivator behind the scenes, picking everyone up after each failure along the way. Meanwhile, Açık, who actually comes from a military background but has experience working with brands such as Adil Işık, was a great strategist, while Emre Eroğlu filled in the gaps with his skills that perfectly complement his partners.

The three partners founded their company Oleago. The name, as you can guess, comes from the Latin oleum, meaning olives, which are the heart and soul of the product they create.

Think of olives and olive trees. Besides pines and cypresses, olive trees are one of the oldest species on Earth and an incredible resource for humans. They grow quickly, needing about three years to bear fruit, favoring the sun and warmth and thus requiring little rain. Their roots reach deep into the earth, meaning they can grow even on arid lands. On top of requiring virtually no pesticides, they are also a source of food. We use their meaty exterior in salads and tapenades; we press them for the most delicious oil; we use their leaves for tea and rest in their shade. The only thing that seemed to be going to waste until now was the pomace, which actually has the potential to be turned into something useful.

"We strived to give olives the value they deserved, and we also chose it because it is the symbol of 'rebirth', universal kindness and peace," Eşref Açık tells me from his brightly-lit office over Zoom.

One of the issues with the olive and olive oil industry is that the waste, namely olive mill pomace in this case, does not have that many real-life applications. It can be utilized as fuel or organic fertilizer, however, this can generate unwanted carbon emissions, depending on the conditions. So, in essence, you could be harming the environment while trying to reuse waste.

Açık says that's what spurred them to find a way to recycle the biowaste, including elements of unused and discarded vegetables and fruits such as the stems of tomatoes, and create a brand new and value-added product out of it. This also meant not using raw materials that could be an essential food source just to create an industrial product, and instead using parts that were already a by-product of the industry and virtually had little to no alternative uses.

Bio beats synthetic vegan

Leather is one of fashion's most commonly used materials despite it hurting the environment and the workers who manufacture it – not forgetting animals, too, if it is cow-derived and not synthetic. That's one of the reasons why plant-based leather is better than plastic-based, wax or polyurethane-coated artificial alternatives.

Quality is another factor. Oleatex is comparable, if not better than PVC-laden 'vegan' leather.

"Apart from meeting the general average expectations and requirements in all titles, the results of the quality tests we've had to go through by internationally-accredited independent organizations have been very pleasing," said Açık. Oleatex is also in the midst of getting certified by the USDA (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) to be labeled organic, V-label to be called a quality vegan and vegetarian product and DIN to certify that is biobased and made of compostable materials.

Oleatex leather is naturally pigmented but can be dyed in a variety of shades with organic dyes. (Courtesy of Oleago)

It is also much kinder to nature; not only is it obtained from herbal waste but it also uses fewer chemicals during its production. It uses water-based organic dyes and is free of carcinogens.

The bioleather created by Oleago can be up to 70% plant-based depending on its intended purpose. They now want to increase this rate to 100% in a bid to create a perfect alternative to artificial leather.

From a design and fashion perspective, Oleatex can be manufactured in various colors, patterns, softness and qualities to suit the area it will be used in.

What makes Oleatex or any other product made from biowaste so sustainable is that as long as humankind continues to eat and live, there will always be enough "raw material."

From Iznik and Gemlik in northwest Turkey's Bursa province and down south to the Aegean and southeast Anatolia, Turkey's coasts are dotted with olive trees.

Proximity to the raw material allows for its quick transport to production facilities, which is not only an advantage from a business perspective but also a big plus for the environment as it reduces greenhouse gases.

"With minimal cost and close to zero carbon emissions, that's how we do it. That's the foundation of a circular economy," adds Açık.

The journey

Oleatex leather looks exactly like high-quality and smooth artificial or animal-derived leather. (Courtesy of Oleago)

Oleago was founded as a start-up that "felt the burden" and wanted to know how it could "create a positive impact on the ecosystem."

This journey towards creating impactful and sustainable products led them to Biolive, a team of young and brilliant scientists that had managed to create bio-based plastics out of olive pits. With the addition of leading academics from Turkey's leading universities to their joint team and after a lengthy and tiring R&D process of about two years, Oleatex was born in 2020.

Like parents holding their baby for the first time, the Oleatex team says their proudest moment was when they held their first sample and seeing that it was ready for mass production. After years of research, occasional failures, many disappointments and small victories, it was the point when they realized that this invention could turn into something huge.

It's hard to give an exact founding date, says Açık, who added that the COVID-19 pandemic sped up the whole process.

"We were seeing with our own eyes, living by learning that the world was growing more polluted every day, most of which was becoming irreversible. So, we set out on this path believing that we should take responsibility to leave a better future for our children. Even if our goal is small, we believe with all our hearts that we will make a huge impact with the projects we work on, and contribute to the formation of a more livable and healthy ecosystem. To ensure that the products we produce reach all segments in society and raise collective awareness," he said.

Pandemic and the future

Oleago was founded as a start-up to spark change in the textiles and packaging industry. (Courtesy of Oleago)

For Oleago, the COVID-19 pandemic was both a blessing and a curse. The much-needed slowdown gave them ample time to spend hours and days at their lab, doing experiments and researching the literature. It also made them realize how humans could be rendered helpless in the face of nature's sheer power.

"If someone had told us 18 months ago that humans around the world would be confined to their homes and a tiny microorganism would turn our lives upside down, we would not have believed them. Especially in a time when were are flying to Mars," joked Açık.

"We learned that you cannot make fun of nature or the ecosystem; it can take back what it so generously gave. The dolphins we saw in the Bosporus and the animals returning to cities were all a demonstration of that. ... So, we realized it was high time to shoulder some responsibility if we wanted to have a future," he said, adding that making more sustainable choices was every individual's responsibility.

And although the most onus is on the consumer, if brands and companies don't meet the demand all effort is in vain.

Brands that do not constantly develop or choose only to become a part of the change instead of leading it eventually lose their relevancy and power, according to Açık. With a combined knowledge and experience of almost 70 years, that's the biggest lesson, he says, Oleago has learned from the fashion and textiles industry.

While speed and adaptation have traditionally been the biggest requirements in a consumerist society, nowadays the focus is shifting towards sustainability, which is slowly becoming an indispensable part of any brand's identity.

The brands and companies of the future will be those outstepping their commercial boundaries to create a more liveable world for generations to come, says Açık.

"We believe that brands that cannot keep up with this will have no place in the future."

What more can Turkey do?

"(As a country) we still have a long way to go but I prefer to view this in a positive way," says Açık. One way to spark industry-wide change is through laws and regulations, as many countries in Europe and the rest of the world have been doing.

"Especially within the scope of the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Turkey has actualized many objectives and continues to do so. But we think that a change in perception and awareness in end consumers is necessary above all, considering the speed of this transformation. We need all sectors to see sustainability not as luxury or privilege, but as indispensable."

What's the biggest problem with the brands of today? I ask. Açık says, hesitantly, the misleading marketing.

Oleatex leather can be made into different textures, colors and softness. (Courtesy of Oleago)

"Though I'm not sure if I am even qualified to answer this question (as an outsider), in my personal opinion it's the pretending," he says.

While some brands pour everything they have into being truly sustainable and put their money where their mouth is, most others, especially fast fashion brands, act like they are "green" just to lure in more customers. Greenwashing is pervading the industry with brands believing that releasing a single sustainable collection erases all past wrongdoings.

However, Açık says the brands that honestly and wholeheartedly follow the sustainable path will be making a big difference in the future, even though they currently have to bear the extra costs.

Speaking of costs, Oleatex's pricing will also help it shine among others. As most of you may know, if you were to buy a clothing item that costs TL 100, a sustainable version will be thrice of that to compensate for the growing, manufacturing and certifications.

"We consciously designed a technology/production process suitable for mass production. Our goal is to reach as many people as we can. And of course, we are aware that cost is a very important factor in achieving this," says Açık.

We do not want this to be a luxury few can afford, he concludes, "we want to transform (society)."

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