Oxford student starts vegan leather business

As we grow ever more aware of the challenges facing our world, many of us look to become increasingly environmentally conscious as consumers. With the fashion industry being the second largest polluter in the world, this must also impact what we choose to wear. One option for those interested in introducing more sustainability into their spending sprees is vegan leather. This can offer the dual benefit of lessening our carbon footprint and also offering a plant-based alternative for those looking for a cruelty-free lifestyle -estimated to include about 1,000,000 people in the U.K. alone.

However, vegan leather, like all aspects of veganism is not without its controversy. There are many who suggest that the product is synonymous with ‘plastic’, thus negating any environmental benefits generated through abstaining from animal products. There have also been questions about the longevity and durability of plant-based products. I spoke to Gabriel Moreno, an MSc student at Oxford who co-founded Fiquetex, a vegan leather brand, to get his take on the debate.

Q: One of the most common criticisms of vegan leather is that it is made from plastic, and thus environmentally damaging. What are the alternatives on the market, including what Fiquetex offers?

A: Currently there are 3 types of leather readily available, Animal, Vegetable and Plastic. The Animal leather has received criticism for its treatment of animals during production, as well as the pollution that it creates. Plastic leather is an alternative, which is often mass-produced, however it contains many acrylic resins which pollute and damage the environment as well as using vast amounts of energy to produce. Fiquetex however, uses the natural Fique plant and a natural rubber latex as a bonding agent, which means that our materials are 100% biodegradable. Once our material has come to the end of its useful life, it can be buried and will become nutrients to the soil.

Q: A concern about plant-based products is that they don’t have the longevity or wearability of their animal-based equivalents. What would you say in response to this?

A: This is a valid concern, however during our prototype testing we compared our vegan leather to current, unsustainable alternatives and found that our material matches the wearability. We also use a natural finish on our materials to ensure durability. Our process uses around 10% less energy than plastic leathers and the Fique plant absorbs co2 during its lifespan of up to 50 years, meaning that it is also more beneficial to the environment than animal-based equivalents.

Q: Was the environmental/ethical impact a key consideration for you when starting a business or was this something you embraced after finding a gap in the market?

A: The environmental and ethical impact was a key consideration when starting the company. Worrying research predicts that by 2050, there will be more plastic bags than fish in the sea, water levels will have risen dramatically, and the population will be too large to rely on just animal-based products. Also, we found that millennials expressed an interest in buying ecologically friendly alternatives such as bags for life, so I knew that there was a huge potential for a 100% sustainable alternative on the market.

Q: Textile companies in the past have often faced criticism for exploitative production methods, how can a new vegan textile industry avoid these practices?

A: Fiquetex aims to directly counter some of these problems. Fique farmers currently only use the plant for small fibres; however, we will pay them a fair-trade price to harvest the entire plant. This will provide more income and employment to rural farmers in Colombia. Furthermore, no animals will be harmed or abused in the production of our materials. In this way, farmers, animals and the environment all benefit.

Q: Do you think local governments and the international community have a responsibility to champion and support new vegan and sustainability-focused businesses as part of on-going action against climate change?

A: I do believe it is up to them as they are the regulation makers. It is in their hands to subsidise, support and promote new green technology. Thankfully, there are many organisations which are working towards this; we have received backing and support from local governments in Colombia, the Royal Academy of Engineering in London, as well as interest from Australian and Peruvian officials who are interested in expanding Fiquetex. They have the power to make changes, although we must work together to generate new solutions!

Q: What would you say to other Oxford students interested in starting their own environmental/ethically conscious businesses?

I would say there is no time like the present – go for it!. Environmental/ethical concerns are sadly only growing by the day and will become a major issue in the future decades if we don’t improve our efforts. However, there is a lot of support and knowledge out there, so get researching and do your part!

Companies like Fiquetex, which promises to sequester 11,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2025, could offer consumers an alternative for ethical and environmentally conscious shopping. You can read more about Fiquetex here: https://www.raeng.org.uk/global/sustainable-development/africa-prize/news-and-updates/december-2019