A former automation engineer has created a vegan leather made from upcycled flowers. Called Fleather, the innovative leather alternative has caught the attention of luxury fashion brands and the UN.
Ankit Agarwal and research scientist Saumya Srivastava didn’t start with vegan leather. In 2018, they launched Kanpur Flower Cycling Private Limited. The small company, based in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India, made incense from leftover temple flowers. One day, they noticed a “dense, fibrous” material growing out of the unused flower fibers.
“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,” Srivastava told Verve Magazine. The company gathers around 2.7 tonnes of flowers in Kanpur daily. Flowers are sorted by species and the petals—which are used to make the leather—are broken down by hand. The remaining green portion is used for vermicomposting.
From Flower Petals to Vegan Leather
At the factory, they prepare an extract that they 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,” Srivastava explained. Agarwal described the process for turning flower petals into vegan leather as “like making curd.”
Like cowhide leather, the raw material is versatile. It can be used to make “handbags, shoes, apparel, and any other products.” In 2019, Fleather won the UN Sustainability Award, and caught the fashion industry’s attention.
“Everyone wants a sustainable alternative 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,” said Agarwal.
The company already has deals with three unnamed luxury Italian brands. All three are developing complete ranges, which will be launched internationally.
Is Vegan Leather Sustainable?
Faux leather can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s a response to the animal cruelty within the traditional leather industry. But, most vegan leather accessories are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is derived from fossil fuels. The impact of fossil fuels on the planet has been well-documented, plus vegan leather must also be processed and dyed—and PVC isn’t biodegradable.
However, traditional leather also has its problems. Not only does it contribute to animal cruelty, but the hides must also be tanned, which requires soaking in a chromium salt bath. Chromium salt is hazardous to both people and the planet, according to Gizmodo.
But innovators in the fashion industry are thinking on their feet. Vegan leather no longer comes with a negative environmental impact. In addition to Fleather’s use of old flowers, faux leather can be made from pineapple, apple, corn, or coconut waste. Mushrooms provide another sustainable alternative to leather.