One of the cruelest ironies of our time is that ⅓ of all the food produced ends up in landfills before it can reach the plate; As such, the number of people affected by hunger has been slowly increasing since 2014. Yet another irony lies in the wastage of the food that we spend energy on growing, which, when dumped, goes on to contribute as much as 8-10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the lntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report titled ‘Climate Change and Land’.
While the obvious solutions of being mindful of our food consumption and composting food waste are common knowledge, the issue of wasted food still looms large in national as well as global contexts.
So, a handful of Indian fashion and accessories designers decided to do something about it. From agro-waste fabrics to discarded fish scales leather, with their innovation, climate-conscious, And globally relevant designs, these creative minds have managed to shift the presumptions of fabrics made from waste and pave the path for new possibilities in eco-conscious design that is truly futuristic, yet rooted in Indian sustainability wisdom.
“We have been wasting renewable resources like agriculture residue and biomass for years. Not only is their economic cost involved in disposing of the waste but it also leads to severe hazardous air pollutants. We can utilize these residues as an alternative source for the production of different products like biogas, and bio-fuel and create alternative materials,” said Shikha Shah, founder of a material science company AltMat that bridges the gap between “the waste of today and the fabrics of tomorrow.”
Fish scale leather
According to Mayura Davda of accessories label Mayu, that started by changing the perception of luxury leather items with the help of fish scale leather, pineapple leather, and Kauna grass which are all sourced from the by-products/waste of the food and agro industries. And while pineapple leather is a recent gift of sustainability tech, fish scales have long been used to make leather in the Nordics.
Of its many benefits Davda notes that fish leather production requires much less water, relatively lower temperature of hot water and less energy as compared to conventional leather manufacturing. It even reuses water 8-9 times as compared to the water utilization in bovine leather.
“In the context of fashion, we see agro and food waste as untapped sources of material innovation for now and the future: to turn something of less value into something fashionable and valuable. This is the very premise of our brand and our choice of materials to craft sustainable luxury products which serve as alternatives to the typical luxury goods that very often come at the cost of endangered species for their ‘exotic’ skins,” says Davda.
For Cochin-based Malai Eco, their name gives much, but also nothing away. For who would imagine ‘malai‘, which means ‘cream of coconut’, can be converted into leather? For Zuzana, a material researcher from Slovakia, her explorations with bacterial cellulose began during her master’s studies in London which she then started to dig deeper into in India with Malai’s co-founder Susmith.
But how does coconut cream convert to leather? “Everything starts with the coconut water in our case. After mature coconuts are broken at the processing units, the water is collected, strained and prepared to become a media for a bacterial culture. This is let to ferment for 12-14 days and then harvested in the form of sheets or pellicles. These are then enriched with natural fibers, dyed, dried and processed to become sheets of Malai leather,” Zuzana explains. Malai’s products range from wallets to funny packs, tote bags to backpacks.
And while both Mayu and Malai Eco’s foundation lies in alternative fabrics, there are more brands which are happily jumping on this bandwagon. At the recently achieved FDCI x Lakme Fashion Week, Divyam Mehta presented his first collection made of agricultural waste, in collaboration with Altmat. Mehta defines the fabrics, which are made from the plant fibers left behind once the crops are cut, as “raw and refined at the same time; it feels like linen and falls like wool.”
When asked if he is aiming to experiment with more alternative fabrics for his future collections, Mehta’s answer was a resounding ‘yes’. “My second step would be to take these yarns and do something handloom with them. Then it completes my circle of employing more hands.”
However, sustainability innovations can’t and don’t fulfill their purpose simply by existing. Customer recognition and acceptance playing a pivotal role not only in determining the success of these innovations but also paving the path for future eco-conscious manufacturing as well as consumption. And even though the consumer is getting receptive to innovation and sustainability, thereby allowing the advantage of both which creates an encouraging scenario, “changing the core materials isn’t an easy job; It is a patience-led conscious shift across the supply chain and consumer acceptance”, pointed out Shah.
Davda, too, believes that even though her fish scale leather has 8-10x more strength than its traditional counterparts, wide scale knowledge and acceptance of the material is yet to be achieved. “Until a critical mass of people do not adopt this way of life and consumption shift it would be difficult to meet, of scale making such solutions accessible. All stakeholders in this ecosystem must contribute in their own ways: consumers by demand, manufacturers by innovating and producing solutions, brands by adopting these solutions and the authorities by making the influx of such innovation feasible by providing the backing required for the shift.”
The challenge of this is not just applicable to the Indian context, but also from a global perspective. Zuzana observes that it is so because “we are trying to introduce to consumers something new, something where different standards apply. Working with organic natural materials is something completely different from working with synthetic or man-made materials where everything comes in uniform, standardized forms. It’s challenging for us, as producers, but also for the consumers because they have to change the way they think and perceive quality.”
She also believes that even though food waste as resources for fabric is the way forward, “we probably shouldn’t look at this as a final solution. We still need to reduce the amount of stuff we waste first.”
But, as Mehta rightly puts it, “There are challenges all the way, but we are here to find the solutions for it.”
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