The vegan leather made from India’s waste flowers

Inside a dusty compound in the northern Indian city of Kanpur lies a sterilised lab with an incubator full of flasks. Each of these flasks contains a small mound of what looks like a sourdough starter.

The room nextdoor houses a shiny metal cylindrical vessel called a bioreactor, akin to what you might expect to find in a laboratory which manufactures antibiotics. But this is no pharmaceutical facility – what is being made in the pipe-laden bioreactor won’t save you from an infection. It could help make India’s rivers a bit cleaner though

It’s called Fleather, and it’s a new material being developed as a sustainable alternative to animal leather. It is delicate and smooth to touch, like soft lamb skin leather, and its journey begins in an unexpected place – flowers. I want to make animal leather history – Ankit Agarwal

Fleather, made by a Kanpur-based startup called Phool, is part of an emerging trend of companies producing plant- and fungi-based leather alternatives which aim to disrupt the traditional leather industry and capitalise on growing interest in “vegan” fashion.

Producing leather from animals poses several environmental hazards. It is energy- and water-intensive and the process of tanning and treating animal skin with chemicals to make leather releases toxic heavy metals that can poison water bodies. Cattle rearing to source animal skin, meanwhile, produces greenhouse gases and contributes to deforestation. Animal rights activists also condemn leather, citing inhumane conditions in slaughter houses.

The startup’s journey began on a cold winter morning in 2015, when Ankit Agarwal and his friend made their way to the bustling bank of the Ganges in Agarwal’s hometown Kanpur for some sightseeing.

The Ganges is believed by Hindus to be the most sacred of all rivers. But the sight that greeted the duo belied this faith. Rubbish was floating on the grey, visibly-polluted water. Among the muck were tonnes of flowers – marigolds, roses and chrysanthemums – discarded by temples and worshippers. These flowers are used in Hindu rituals and are considered sacred, meaning they can’t be disposed of along with other waste.

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But depositing them in a river is sometimes part of the ritual and as a result flowers are dumped in water bodies daily where they leach out harmful chemicals from pesticides, and eventually decay into mulch that contaminates the water. Undeterred by the obvious pollution, devotees take ceremonial dips in the Ganges and cup their palms to take holy sips.

The sight disturbed Agarwal, and set him on a quest to find a solution to the uniquely Indian problem of temple flower waste, which he calls “the lowest hanging fruit” among pollutants. In 2017, he zeroed in on an idea to upcycle the flowers into incense sticks, and founded Phool (“flower” in Hindi).

The company is backed by the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur and counts Bollywood star Alia Bhatt among its investors. Every morning Phool trucks travelled around Kanpur’s temples collecting the flower waste before it was dumped into the river. At the Phool factory, workers plucked the petals and set them to dry. The dried petals were then powdered and made into a dough with essential oils which female workers then rolled into incense sticks.

But it turned out that there was a far more impactful and surprising use for the flowers, as the company was soon to discover.

A chance discovery

On a humid day in 2018, Nachiket Kuntla, head of research and development at Phool, and other scientists at the company noticed a whitish layer on a pile of waste flowers on the factory floor.

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