VEGEA and Lies Mertens, a collaboration Grand Cru
Since day one, almost five years ago, sustainable choices have been at the heart of Lies Mertens' practice. The next challenge is to become less dependent on animal products and by-products. After all, the environmental and climate impact of our livestock farming today, and therefore of leather, is too great.
A thorough search for a worthy alternative led us to VEGEA. Friend of the brand and sustainability expert Laurens De Meyer explains what VEGEA stands for and why it is an excellent alternative.
Laurens examines how we can adapt our society to cope with the climate and environmental problems. He does not only focus on the direct impact of the materials used but also looks at the bigger picture. In his view, we should use our production processes to strengthen both the environment and our communities instead of undermining them. As is still too often the case today.
Lies Mertens works with animal leather tanned by partners whose processes meet the most stringent environmental standards. Finding a worthy alternative is not an easy task. After all, a product that is not animal-derived is not automatically a blessing for our environment. Many leather alternatives are petroleum-based plastics with a significant climate impact. At the end of their life we are left with a non-recyclable waste product.
Replacing a circular, biological product such as leather with a purely synthetic plastic product would be a short-sighted solution.
After all, Lies Mertens intends to contribute to the evolution towards independence from finite fossil resources and the transition to a circular use of raw materials. In that regard, raw materials that generate added value through their production are preferred, for both the environment and the local economy. With VEGEA, the brand found the ideal partner to take its first steps in rethinking the use of raw materials.
A COMPANY WITH A GOOD AFTERTASTE
The 'VEG' in VEGEA refers to the vegetable origin of the materials used, GEA comes from the Latin Gaea or Mother Earth. The name of the company thus symbolizes its twofold mission: to develop new materials of plant origin that have a positive impact on our planet.
VEGEA was founded in 2016 in Milan, the heart of the Italian fashion scene and, therefore, the perfect place to start making this industry more sustainable. The founders are three young entrepreneurs: Valentina, Gianpero and Fransceso. A fascinating team with a background in chemistry and architecture. The trio aims to change the world of leather goods while tackling a waste problem in another notorious Italian industry, winegrowing. In 2017 they were awarded the Global Change Award for their concept. They also won a growth grant from the European Union. Since then, VEGEA has been taking the fashion world by storm. Calvin Klein, & Other Stories and Le Coq Sportif, among others, went into business with the manufacturer. Moreover, things are also moving fast outside the fashion world. Bentley, for example, used VEGEA for the interior of a new car.
FROM JUICY GRAPE TO VEGETABLE LEATHER
VEGEA isolates the strongest vegetable properties from the grape. After pressing the grapes, in addition to the liquid that later becomes wine, three products remain: seeds, stems and grape skins.
Thanks to their background in chemistry, the founders of VEGEA discovered that these three raw materials are the ideal components of a wear-resistant product. After all, the stems, skins and seeds’ remnants supply fine fibres . Bonded together by a polymer extracted from the oil of the grape seed, an elastic, supple, soft and at the same time firm and textured product is born.
In short, the making process goes as follows: After the grapes have been picked and pressed (once a year), the seeds, stems and skins are dried to obtain a biologically stable product. The stems and skins are then separated from the seeds. Oil is extracted from the seeds. The oil serves as the base material for a polymer, in this case, a product comparable to resin. The polymer gives VEGEA its elasticity, flexibility and softness. The remnants of the seeds, stems and skins are first steamed and then ground into a fine, fibre-rich powder that gives VEGEA its firmness and texture. The powder is then mixed back with the grape seed polymer. This mixture can be poured on a carrier, such as cotton, in the desired thickness after which it is dried. The result is a vegetable leather: VEGEA. Pigment may be added during the mixing to obtain colour. Finish, thickness and texture can also vary. This way, VEGEA is able to offer a range of interesting alternatives to leather.
NO PITY PARTY
The environmental benefit of this product is multidimensional. For starters, VEGEA has the ambition to drastically reduce the use of both animal and petroleum-based synthetic leather-. As a result, the environmental impact of both livestock farming and the extraction and processing of petroleum indirectly decreases. Additionally, VEGEA captures CO2 that was once in our atmosphere and makes it harmless. How? Plants, including grapevines, use CO2 to grow and store it in their tissues, including in the grape stems, skin and seeds. After harvesting and pressing wine grapes, enormous quantities of those three raw materials are left over. They are usually burned as a waste product, releasing the CO2 back into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. VEGEA ensures that the seeds, stems and skin are no longer burned but transformed into a sustainable product.
Therefore, we can think of a bag in VEGEA as a locker that safely stores CO2 so that it is no longer harmful to our planet.
Another advantage is that the grapes used come from Italy, resulting in a local, European story.
Another advantage of VEGEA is its low water footprint. So much water is consumed and polluted during the tanning of animal leather, which has to be cleaned afterwards. This is not the case with VEGEA. The water extracted from the seeds, stems and skins during the drying process can even be recovered and recycled later in the process. This way, water consumption is reduced to an absolute minimum.
Every year we all drink about 26 billion litres of wine, resulting in a sloppy 7 billion kilograms of waste product that can be converted into a sustainable alternative to leather. In other words, up to 2600 square kilometres of VEGEA, enough to cover about the entire province of Antwerp with a layer of vegan leather every year.
So the potential of VEGEA to become a stronghold within the fashion industry is enormous. Lies Mertens is only too happy to contribute to that.