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This Woman Is Creating an Economy Around Plant-Based Leather Founded by a woman who is an architect and designer, Irma Orenstein, Nova Milan is trying to solve both the leather and vegan leather industry problems

By Alex Belov

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Irma Orenstein

Raising animals for food and leather requires huge amounts of feed, pastureland, water and fossil fuels. Animals on factory farms produce 130 times more excrement compared with the entire human population, without the benefit of waste treatment plants. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has even acknowledged that livestock pollution is the greatest threat to our waterways.

In addition, raising animals whose skin eventually becomes leather requires vast quantities of water and wide tracts of pastureland, which must be cleared of trees. In fact, in the last half-century, 70 per cent of the Amazon rainforest has been cleared to make way for pastures or for growing feed crops, according to PETA.

This mass deforestation causes habitat loss for millions of species, eliminates the Earth's tree canopy, and drives climate change. The production of leather harms the environment and the workers who manufacture it, and results in death of almost 1 billion animals per year.

With consciousness raised, the world turned to vegan leather which in actuality is mostly made from plastics which take years to biodegrade, and as bad for the planet as regular leather. Micro-plastic pollution is a big threat, as it uses an extensive amount of water, energy and chemicals to be processed, and made into the material which sadly impacts the earth and sustainability issues arise. Additionally, micro-plastic pollution has contaminated the water supply of the entire planet, from Arctic snow and mountain soils to many rivers and the deepest oceans. Worryingly, it is also being consumed and inhaled by people, and the health impacts are as yet unknown.

Clothing made from plastic can pose a threat during and after its lifespan because it could end up in water or landfill. This takes years to degrade and releases toxic chemicals into the environment, which is unsustainable. It's estimated that nearly 13 million tonne of synthetic fibers enter our oceans each year, according to the Science Magazine.

Working on a solution

Nova Milan is trying to solve both the leather and vegan leather industry problems. The company is building a sustainable supply chain ecosystem that will produce the world's first plant-based 100 per cent petroleum-free vegan leather, sustainable fabrics, and single-use plastic using 100 per cent renewable energy in the jungles of Costa Rica.

Founded by a woman who is an architect and designer, Irma Orenstein selected to work in Costa Rica because it has rich, fertile soil for growth, and the agricultural byproducts to create sustainable zero-plastic vegan leather that saves the environment while meeting the fast-rising ethical consumption consumer base which is expected to reach $89.6 billion by 2025, according to Vegconomist.

"I fell in love with Costa Rica," says Orenstein. "The people, culture and how they appreciate and respect nature. I knew this was the place where Nova Milan would launch the world's finest plant-based economy."

What keeps Nova Milan different from other industry players is that it uses raw materials that come from agricultural waste such as pineapple leaves that are usually burned or left to rot and cause greenhouse pollutants. They do not use new harvests that require more energy and water consumption for their materials.

Costa Rica is the world's largest pineapple exporter shipping $1 billion per year. That's 47 per cent of the total pineapple exports of the world; which means around 5 million tonne of agricultural waste.

The production journey starts with the leaves of the pineapple that are harvested, then decorticating the leaves to fiber and waste, the former going into fabric production, and creating products for the end consumer which are biodegradable, and the latter becoming nutrients to be added back to the soil.

The biomass waste is converted and processed to create organic enriching soil materials and biofuel such as ethanol which is donated to the local farmer's population.

Nova Milan is using state-of-the-art distributed ledger/blockchain technology to provide traceability and transparency to every step in the process from planting seeds to manufacturing and all the way to retail consumers.

The company is not only solving the problems from the ground up but they are also creating a scalable platform that is socially and environmentally responsible using renewable clean energy while delivering attainable price points for the consumer.

"We are uber-izing the production of ethical products," explains Orenstein. "The sustainability market is like a bunch of pirate ships. It is not organized to scale and Nova Milan's mission is turning it into an organized Navy fleet."

Nova Milan is inviting the old leather industry and "vegan' leather companies to participate in this new ethical alliance to compete and go head-to-head with non-environmental companies. This new "pleather' industry player already has a customer base of fashion groups, brands and industry leaders.

"We present a win-win situation," says Orenstein. "The planet and animals won't be harmed, people will be employed, and major brands and suppliers will please the fast-rising ethical consumer base that demands a change."

Alex Belov



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