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Fleather, a vegan leather made from upcycled flowers, is a new type of faux leather that provides a sustainable alternative to plastic-based materials.

Vegan leather is a material that mimics leather, but is created from artificial or plant products instead of animal skins.It is most often made from two different plastic polymers; polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – they are most commonly used due to their wrinkled texture which helps to give the effect of real leather.  As time has passed, however, the sweet deal that a fake leather jacket once was has turned a bit sour. No animals are harmed in the process of making it, but its impact on the environment, pleather’s sustainability is hugely up for debate.

The first step in creating a leather-like fabric is to chemically treat polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride, which must be flexible enough to resemble leather: the former necessitates painting liquid polyurethane onto a fabric backing, which requires a hazardous solvent; the latter necessitates plasticizers such as phthalates, which are equally hazardous. Both spring from fossil fuels, which when burned produce ash, nitrogen, and carbon in the atmosphere, all of which contribute to acid rain (as well as a slew of other unfortunate side effects).

When it comes to ethical and sustainable standards of the leather industry, there’s a lot to consider as a mindful consumer.

By measuring the impacts in terms of grams of CO2 equivalents per square meter of material used, the answer is that it does not matter whether we use natural or synthetic leather: the environmental costs are higher than most other materials. On average, we would need to use 12 square meters of PU leather to compensate for the environmental costs of one square meter of cotton or linen. Even if our PU is made with 100% renewable electricity, it still has an environmental impact per square metre higher than any other fabric that we know of. Plant-based vegan leather is a more sustainable alternative to regular PU leather.

 During the process of creating PVC faux leather, the material’s main components are released into the air and become pollutants. Faux leather also leaks toxic chemicals into the ground when placed it landfills, and emits toxic gasses when burned in an incinerator. 

Vegan leather can be made from more natural sources such as banana leaves, mushrooms, and cork.The latest addition to plant-based leather is Fleather, by Phool.  Founded in 2017 by Ankit Agarwal and Prateek Kumar, the startup aims to address the waste created when the flowers are discarded into the Ganges river—where the drinking and bathing water becomes contaminated with pesticides used in the flower industry—by creating consumer products from upcycled flowers, including what it called “fleather”.

Made in India, it relies on something called flower cycling technology and works with self-help women groups to gather and recycle around 13 tonnes of floral waste per day. While vegan leather alternatives on the market might be cruelty-free, they aren’t always eco-friendly if they are derived from plastic or synthetic substances. Crafted out of natural plant-based waste matter, the company’s ethical solution embraces circularity and sustainability. 

 For this innovation, Phool was selected with nine start-up innovators of the South Asia Innovation Programme’s second batch held recently by global initiative,Fashion for Good.

Fleather was a chance discovery which took place while the team was working on their other flower waste-based products. The process to make it is quite similar to curd. They noticed a “dense, fibrous, mat”, that was growing on a pile of unused flower fibres and the texture resembled that of leather in appearance, elasticity and tensile strength.Intrigued by the formation of a leather-like white layer on unused piles of flowers, the company’s R&D team discovered the growth of a microorganism which used flower petals as a nutritional source.

The company took to the lab to identify the biological species, grow similar strains and isolated the best performing ones. Then, Phool used their proprietary technique to extract the nutritional content from flowers, in the process incorporating additives, which helped to develop the final medium to enable the growth of the microorganism to create fleather. Leather contains collagen which provides it strength and durability, whereas fleather has chitin, a protein, that gives it the same properties. Collagen and chitin are natural analogues, making fleather a perfect substitute for leather.

It took the team two long years of experimenting, trial and error, patience, and persistence to finally develop a prototype.

The exact steps to make Fleather are proprietary. However the initial process is similar to all the company products. Flower waste brought to the facility is segregated by hand and plastics/paper are weeded out.  Marigold, rose, and daisy are readily available in the temples and are the most common ones being used for fleather.Organic bioculum is sprayed on the flowers to offset the chemical residue. Then, the flowers are washed, and the water is stored to use in vermicomposting. Petals of each flower are crushed, sun-dried and fermented into Fleather for a dense, fibrous mat.The actual making of the plant-based leather occurs within a lab over a three-week period.

This ensures the desired thickness and material strength are achieved. Not only does this mean recycling plant matter that would otherwise be thrown away, the end product, which functions and looks like real leather, is far less carbon-intensive and is also completely biodegradable. Producing one square metre of fleather uses an average of 73kg of flower waste. Currently the company is making 1,200 square feet of Fleather everyday. It is made in batches of two-by-two feet which uses up around 400 grams of flower. The entire process takes 13 days.

Part of Lakmé Fashion Week’s 2020 Circular Design Challenge, Fleather has won accolades from the United Nations even before formally entering the market. 

By the power of flower cycling, team PHOOL stops 7,600 kgs waste flowers and 97 kgs toxic chemicals from getting into the river everyday and  provides livelihood to 1200 rural families and employs 73 women ‘flowercyclers’.The company has also collaborated with the Tirupati temple for this initiative and are currently collecting around 2.7 tonnes of flowers per day in Kanpur.

Currently, the country manufactures more than 3 billion square feet of hide each year – representing nearly 13% of the world’s hide production. Vegan leathers, in particular, are on the uptrend as well. According to a recent report by analysts at Infinitum Global, demand for vegan leather will continue to rise by an annual rate of 49.9% to reach a whopping US$89.6 billion by 2025. The company now plans to scale up its operations both in India and internationally, and harness research and development to bring its Fleather material to global markets to the extent that it replaces animal leather.

The brand aims to use the same digital-first approach it has followed with its fragrance business to grow its Fleather business. 


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