Nowadays, you can find leather products made from cows, bamboo, mushrooms, and even apples. But there’s new leather on the market made from the hides of a spectacular, yet deeply destructive, sea creature.
Inversa has found a way to tan lionfish skins, turning them into beautiful, durable leathers that can be used in shoes, accessories and other products. Its goal is to create a lucrative supply chain that will encourage fishermen to hunt this invasive species that is wreaking havoc on ecosystems around the world, from the Mediterranean Sea to coral reefs off Florida.
Tampa-based Inversa was founded in 2020 by Aarav Chavda, a Princeton-educated mechanical engineer who spent all his free time scuba diving. Over the years he had seen vibrant coral reefs become faded and lifeless. While there are many reasons for this destruction – from climate change to polluting sunscreens – one of the most pressing issues is the lionfish, which feed on a variety of young native fish and significantly disrupt the environment. ‘ecosystem.
The lionfish is native to the Pacific Ocean, where it is part of a larger ecosystem, with both predators and prey, and is therefore less invasive. But scientists believe that sometime in the 1980s lionfish were released off the Atlantic coast of Florida, where they had no predators. A single lionfish can reduce the population of juvenile fish in its feeding area by 80%, and when the lionfish entered the Atlantic, fish species of all kinds declined almost immediately. Many of the fish it feeds on eat coral reef algae, and without it algae growth goes unchecked, killing reefs. At the same time, female lionfish release 25,000 eggs every few days, which means their populations are growing exponentially.
In 2020, Chavda left his position as an analyst at McKinsey to launch Inversa with Roland Salatino, a childhood friend. Over the past two years, Inversa has built a complex supply chain. First, the company buys fish from individual anglers and fishing cooperatives all over Florida, as well as Mexico and the Caribbean islands. “Until now, they had no incentive to hunt lionfish because lobster and grouper are much more valuable in the market,” Chavda says. “By creating this supply chain, we are creating an incentive for them to catch the lionfish instead.”
Currently, Inversa buys several thousand fish a day, but is looking to increase this volume. These fish are brought to a central processing center in Tampa, where the fish meat is sent to local restaurants while the skins are collected and sent to a tannery in Ohio. At the tannery, the hides go through a 60-step tanning process where the leather is dried and treated with chemicals so that it is comparable to other premium leathers on the market. “We are very proud that every part of the fish is used,” says Chavda. “The tannery is also focused on resource conservation; less than a cup of waste water is produced for each hide.
Inversa then partners with fashion brands to turn these skins into products. Italian luxury sneaker brand P448 has used lionfish leather in its collections for the past three seasons. The Teton Leather Company, which creates high-end accessories, has used it in watches and wallets. Inversa now caters to more brands to create products. Footwear and accessory brands use a single skin in each product, but skins can also be sewn together to create wider strips that can be used in bags and clothing.
Over the past decade, fashion brands have increasingly focused on sustainability as the industry’s devastating impact on the planet becomes clear. Leather is particularly problematic. Making cowhide results in deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, vegan leather is largely made from plastic, which takes years to biodegrade. Chavda believes lionfish leather can be an alternative to these materials, with the added benefit of actively helping the planet.
But Chavda thinks beyond the lionfish. Its goal is to make materials from many different invasive species. Inversa is currently working on a new material, which it plans to announce in the coming months, and is working with its current partners to launch new products. “Unfortunately, there are millions of lionfish in these ecosystems, and we still have a long way to go to reduce this population,” he says. “But there are many other invasive species. We believe they can all be used in fashion products.