Toxic flowers become sustainable leather substitute

“We began life with a simple idea: to clean up India’s holiest river,” says Ankit Agarwal. “In the process, we’ve discovered a material growing on our factory floor that could one day replace Animal leather for good. Sometimes ground-breaking ideas come from unlikely situations, and we want to thank The Earthshot Prize for recognising ours.”

It is indeed an unlikely idea, at first glance. Seven years ago, Ankit Agarwal saw worshippers poisoning their holy river. Today, Fleather is cleaning the river and helping those who worship it too.

The Ganges, lifeline to 420 million people, is the second most polluted river in the world. That is little surprise considering 96% of the flowers cast into the river contain highly toxic pesticides.

During the festival of Makara Sankranti in 2015, Ankit Agarwal and a friend watched pilgrims drink from the Ganges, even as pesticides from used flowers dumped by local temples poisoned the river.

Ankit Agarwal, founder of Phool (Earthshot Prize)

It gave Ankit an idea that would become a business. They decided to repurpose the floral waste. But nobody took them seriously at first. They spent hours experimenting, meeting stakeholders and pitching the idea of managing temple waste. A year and a half and countless hours in a makeshift laboratory later, Phool began collecting the floral waste and turning it into incense sticks. 

But then they noticed that a thick mat-like substance had begun to grow over the unused fibres lying on the factory floor, and realized this mat could be turned into a sustainable alternative to environmentally damaging animal and plastic leather. They called it Fleather.

Earthshot Prize

Since then, Phool has collected 13,000 tonnes of floral waste, and now creates 90 square feet of Fleather each day. In the process, they have created valuable employment opportunities for a marginalised community. Phool today employs over 163 female ‘flowercyclers’ from the Dalit caste who collect waste flowers. In time, they hope to employ 5,000.

Now it is a finalist in the “build a waste-free world’ category of the Earthshot Prize.