The global market for “vegan leather” – materials that act as alternatives to traditional leather that can be synthesised from cork, apple peels, cactus, recycled plastic, grape pomace and pineapple leaves, among other things, and supposedly require no chemicals or water to produce – is expected to grow to nearly $85 billion by 2025.

Until a few years ago, companies offering plant-based leather products were relegated to the fringes of the fashion industry. Now, with a growing demand for the industry to be more environmentally-conscious, brands are beginning to look for ways to eliminate the need to use animal skins in their products.

Artificial leather made from discarded fruit peels, pineapple leaves and mushrooms is being used to manufacture clothing and shoes. Global brands such as Hermes and Adidas have teamed together with start-ups to develop such products.

Vegan leather, which recreates the look and texture of animal skin but with plant-derived raw materials, is now a world trend aimed at animal protection and environmental friendliness.

Hoping to capitalise on these new trends, Cambodia Cotton Club (CCC) – an NGO located in Battambang town’s Voat Kor commune, grows pesticide-free cotton and then spins it into yarn on a 150-year-old Japanese spinning machine in order to manufacture and sell cotton products.

Founded by a Japanese national in 2007, CCC employs women from neighbouring farm households to help them become self-reliant.

“We have newly developed a cotton leather using cotton grown in Battambang and natural Cambodian materials. A completely new material has been created. All of them are made from plants among Cambodia’s natural resources or through sustainable cotton farming,” said Atsushi Furusawa, the founder of CCC and currently serving as its technical advisor.

CCC’s mission is to create employment for women, economic independence and educational opportunities from producing cotton leather made entirely in Cambodia, from the raw materials to the finished product.

“The materials we use are materials that return to the soil. We use natural materials without chemical treatment. For example, the dyes we use to dye our stoles come from plants. We never use harmful chemicals to make the colours last longer. The same goes for cotton leather. We do not use any harmful materials,” said Furusawa.

According to the founder, CCC mainly focuses on helping women who are single mothers because that’s where the need for employment is often greatest in the community.

“There was a time before when there were men working for us, but men would often suddenly go to Thailand to work or were headhunted by other firms. Also, when men and women work together, romantic issues can arise. Solutions to relationship problems are difficult. Women are also better suited for detailed work that requires patience.

“All of the machines at CCC are adjusted to a weight that can be carried by two women. Woodworking, metalworking, and anything else CCC does is also done by women. There is not much that a woman cannot do if she takes a safety course and does it slowly and carefully,” he said.

Battambang province used to be a major cotton producing area but the industry was destroyed in the civil war. Landmines buried during the civil war still remain and the work to remove them is ongoing.

A handbag made of raw cotton by the Cambodia Cotton Club. CCC

According to Furusawa, it is a well known fact that cotton cultivation typically accounts for the largest amount of pesticide use in the world at 5kg per 1kg of cotton grown and the dying process in most cases also uses large amounts of water and toxic chemicals. In fact, 20 per cent of the world’s wastewater is from dying clothing. This isn’t the case with CCC cotton – they use zero pesticides and only natural dyes.

On the other hand, Furusawa pointed out, half of all clothing manufactured with a significant impact on the natural environment is incinerated or disposed of in landfills within a short period of time. In the process of production, consumption, and disposal, large amounts of carbon dioxide are emitted and bodies of water are polluted and much of this is happening in Southeast Asia, where many of the factories are located.

“I was a nurse in Japan, so I’m in charge of health management and coordination of the staff, as well as supervising their work to ensure that there are no accidents,” said lead volunteer Yuka Bando, 36. “We do not use any chemical dyes. We make dyes from plants and fruits that grow wild in the nearby forest. Our dyes come from mango and avocado seeds and we use 100 per cent organic, herbaceous dyes.”

Yuka said she’s motivated by getting a chance to see the staff at CCC develop and grow in their skills and confidence.

“I am very happy when I see a staff member who didn’t have scissors at home learn to use the many different types of scissors in the workshop for different purpose, or when I see a newcomer who was being taught to work by a senior staff member grow up to take care of a junior staff member eventually,” added Yuka.

Working in an all-female workplace can pose difficulties at times in terms of lifting heavy objects but with the use of creative thinking the women are able to get around these problems.

“I hope that our female staff members will learn that with a little ingenuity and the right ideas, they can do anything, even heavy lifting, even without strength, and that they will have the confidence to not give up before they even start,” Yuka said.

Yuka said she’s learned a lot herself in the seven years she’s been working with the female staff at CCC.

“Thinking things through together and then actually doing them and overcoming challenges is a great way for all of us to learn. I believe it is important not to be pessimistic because we are women or men, but to think about how we can achieve our goals. I hope that through their work, they will learn many things and grow.

One 28-year-old staff member, Rorn Chanreuy, said she’s been working for CCC for seven years and that she lives nearby.

“I’m really happy with my work because I can afford to take care of my family with the salary they pay,” Chanreuy said.

CCC products have mainly been sold in Japan up until now partly owing to the organisation founders’ roots there but for other reasons as well.

“Why Japan? Because Japanese people are morbidly neurotic and we believe that if Japanese customers are satisfied then customers in other countries will also be satisfied. We have had various other clients though from places like the US, France and a Catholic church in Spain.

“But when we don’t have enough sales, I work at night and use the money to pay for the operations of CCC. But over 10 pre-orders for cotton leather have come in from Japan,” Atsushi said.