The Leather Alternative That Could Transform Indian Fashion
Every year, Fashion Weeks the world over showcase the latest solutions to the industry’s harmful environmental practices. But with every revelatory solution comes an equally damning critique of it. Eco-friendly materials such as viscose, bamboo, and rayon, once seen as revolutionary, are now being held accountable for large-scale deforestation. Viscose has also been found to cause “water pollution and an alarming array of mental illnesses, strokes and cancer close to factories in India, China and Indonesia,” according to a report by France 24. Vegan leather was another development hailed as a progressive step forward for fashion. It emerged as a response to accusations of animal cruelty by an industry that relied heavily on materials such as leather and fur. The problem is that this too is developed from synthetic alternatives, which are themselves destructive to the environment.
Ankit Agarwal, a former automation engineer, might be on his way to change that. Two years ago, he launched Kanpur Flower Cycling Private Limited (KFPL), a modest company that sold incense sticks made of flowers under the brand name ‘Phool’. It expanded to include Floraform, which is a biodegradable alternative to Styrofoam currently providing protective packaging for companies such as Bajaj and Havell’s. And then there’s Fleather, their innovative alternative to animal leather. Part of Lakmé Fashion Week’s 2020 Circular Design Challenge, Fleather has won accolades from the United Nations even before formally entering the market.
We spoke to Agarwal and research scientist Saumya Srivastava about how Fleather came about and their holistic perspective on sustainability.
Are you the first to have developed something like this – leather made out of flowers?
Saumya Srivastava (SS): Yes, we have pioneered the flower cycling technology wherein we upcycle temple flowers into different sustainable products.
Is there a precedent or any inspiration that you had? Where did the idea strike you?
SS: We started with making incense sticks and cones out of temple flowers. One day we observed the dense thick fibrous mat that was growing on the unused flower fibres that we have in our factory. And the texture of that resembled that of leather in terms of elasticity and tensile strength and all of that. So that’s how the research started. We were already working on incense sticks that were made out of temple flowers, and then that’s how it started.
Now that you’ve developed this fabric, what does your day-to-day look like?
SS: I’m a research scientist here, so I work on creating the semi-finished product (the ‘raw hide’ in animal leather terms) that we send out to brands. This is in the form of leather sheets, from which they make handbags, shoes, apparel, and any other products they want.
Have you already tied up with any brands or are you going to be doing that soon?
Ankit Agarwal (AA): We have tied up with three international fashion brands, the details of which are under embargo. I can say, though, that they are Italian luxury brands, and all three are working to develop a complete fashion range and launch it at an international level.
Can you take me through how Fleather is made from start to finish?
AA: The first thing that happens is we collect flowers from temples. We have started operations with the Tirupati temple for this and are currently collecting around 2.7 tonnes of flowers per day in Kanpur. Once all this temple waste is collected and brought to our factory unit, the sorting begins. The non-biodegradable waste like plastic and thread is weeded out, after which only the flowers remain. These are then sorted according to species such as rose, mogra and marigold. Once the separation is done these flowers are broken down by hand into petals. The green portion that remains is used for vermicomposting. The rest of the petals are used for making this leather.
SS: The petals are brought into our facility at IIT Kanpur, where the fleather product is incubated. Here, we prepare an extract out of them, which we call a flower-based nutritive substrate. And then we have a consortium of organisms that is allowed to grow over this nutritive substrate. Over a period of 3 weeks, fleather is formed.
AA: The process is basically like making curd at home.
Considering you had no prior experience with the fashion industry, how did you go about looking for brands and designers to associate with?
AA: It happened quite organically. What happened was, last year, in 2019, we won the UN Sustainability Award which received a lot of media coverage. After that, we were flooded with requests from fashion houses like Anita Dongre’s house, for example. Everyone wants a sustainable alternate to animal leather and there are very few start-ups in the world that are giving them that. And the ones that are can make the material but haven’t been able to achieve the subtlety, feel and finish of our products. Our focus from day one has been to create a material that feels exactly like leather. That’s also why we always focus on making raw hide, so that they can scale it further.
Do you plan to work with Indian designers in the future?
AA: Our strategy so far has been to first break into the international market, launch the product through an international brand, and then slowly move down to the Indian market. Most of the manufacturing for international brands takes place in India. It constitutes about 12.5% of the total global labour demand. Manufacturing in India reduces the production cost for them and works as a convenient advantage for us. Kanpur is also known as the leather city in India.
Tell me about the people working in your factory. How many do you employ?
AA: We have 70 women from marginalised communities who we have trained and are currently working full-time with us. We provide health insurance and all the required benefits as per labour laws. We even have a bus service so they don’t have problems commuting from different parts of Kanpur. The overarching mission of the company is to develop sustainable products from waste and which would have a trickle-down benefit for everyone involved in their creation. Our aim is to eventually hire 5000 women.