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When shopping for a handbag, a couch or a belt, you’ll likely find that many of the options in stores are partially or totally made of leather. While leather items may be beautiful, the process through which they are made isn’t quite as pretty. In order to create a leather product, a long list of environment-harming chemicals, such as polymers, dyes, and resins, must be used. And let’s not forget that when you purchase genuine leather, you are supporting the skinning of innocent animals in the interest of human fashion.

Dissatisfied with the lack of practical and stylish leather replacements, Susmith C. Suseelan, a product designer with years of experience as a papermaker, set out to make his own. Suseelan explained to the Deccan Chronicle, “Nobody thinks of the harm done to the environment and the number of animals that are slaughtered in the process. It’s high time that an eco-friendly substitute for leather is introduced in the market.”

With help from Zuzana Gombosova, a Slovakian designer and material researcher, Suseelan succeeded in his quest to make an environment- and animal-friendly leather alternative. The two designers worked together to develop a product called Malai, which is made from bacterial cellulose and is 100 percent vegan. Malai is extremely durable, and its feel can be described as somewhere between leather and paper.

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So where do Suseelan and Gombosova get the bacterial cellulose needed to produce Malai? Interestingly enough, it comes from coconut water! Coconut processing units in Kerala, a state in Southern India, discard the water from their coconuts, so Suseelan and Gombosova had the idea to repurpose this byproduct by using it to make bacterial cellulose, which could then be used to create a leather-like material. But the process didn’t happen overnight – Gombosova told the Deccan Chronicle, “It was after trying around 150 different formulations that we finally got close to what we wanted to create – a new sustainable and eco-friendly product that can be used commercially.”

After hours of hard work and experimentation, Suseelan and Gombosova have gotten the process of making Malai down to a science. Suseelan gave some insight into the methods behind Malai production: “Once the coconut water is collected and sterilized, the bacterial culture is made to feed on it. The fermentation period takes 12 to 14 days after which Malai can be harvested, which then undergoes a process of refinement. It is enriched with natural fibers, gums and resins to create a more durable and flexible material so that it can be molded into sheets of different thicknesses and textures. Natural dyes can be added to give color. The final stages include leaving it to air-dry, and then softening by applying gentle water-resistant treatment without adding any plastic coatings or synthetic ingredients.”

Wow, that’s a lot of steps! Although creating Malai may seem like a difficult undertaking, Suseelan said, “It is definitely not as tough as killing an animal to make leather!” We totally agree with that!

So what’s next for Malai? Suseelan and Gombosova are continually working on improving the quality of the material so that it can become widely used. The design partners are experimenting with the possibility of using natural fibers such as banana stems in combination with bacterial cellulose to improve the product. They have already gotten attention from manufacturers after showcasing Malai in various material libraries. Moving forward, the imaginative designers are looking to team up with sustainability-focused companies and brands to get a wide range of products made from Malai onto the market.

We certainly look forward to hearing more about this awesome, eco-friendly leather alternative!

Image Source: Susmith C. Suseelan