From agri-waste to eco-textiles: crop residue finds a place in fashion

  • Agricultural residues like banana stems, pineapple leaves, orange peels, corn husks, fish scales and lotus stems are increasingly being used in the textile industry.
  • While eco textiles are sustainable, use of agri-residues is also offering an extra income to farmers in rural India.
  • India generates over 500 million tons of agricultural and agro-industrial residues every year. Much of it is managed by burning.

Bhaulal Kushwaha grew up around banana plantations, playing hide-and-seek amidst rows of plants while helping his parents. Growing bananas is now his profession and also his passion. But for the past few years, the 30-year-old farmer from Burhanpur district of Madhya Pradesh has been increasingly worried about the banana plant residue eating into his profits. “At the end of every harvest cycle, crop waste is piled up and I have to spend money to get it cleared for the next crop cycle,” said Kushwaha, who owns 2.5 acres of land in the central Indian district. In one cycle, he grows over 5,000 banana plants and claims to spend over Rs. 12,000 to clear the agri-waste.

The solution to Kushwaha’s problem appeared when management graduate Mehul Shroff started a banana fibre manufacturing unit in the district. And in search of raw materials, Shroff knocked on the farmer’s door and offered to pick up the banana pseudostems from his farm land.

Shroff is part of the country’s growing tribe of textile manufacturers that are embracing opportunities to convert agri-waste to produce fibres, spin yarns and weave fabrics – a process that helps conserve the environment, curbs food wastage, and reduces water usage.

So, bamboo, corn husk, orange peels, pineapples, soya beans, eucalyptus, lotus stems, betel nut husks, nettle, hemp, aloe vera, rose petals, sugarcane, milk and even fish scales are no longer food or agri residues discarded as waste. They are increasingly becoming a favoured feedstock for the textile industry.

“Fibres and textiles made from agro-waste are a sustainable alternative to energy intensive oil-based fibres. Biodegradability, waste management and water conservation are its key benefits,” said Shroff, owner of Shroff Industries.

Banana pseudostems for processing at Shroff Industries. Photo by Mehul Shroff.

More than 60% of the fibres in the fashion industry are oil-based. In cases where the production is unchecked and unsustainable, it can place a burden on natural resources. Similarly, natural fibres such as conventional cotton – the second most widely used textile fibre – rely heavily on agrochemicals and are water intensive, according to a latest study by World Resources Institute (WRI) India, Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) and Wageningen University and Research (WUR), commissioned by Laudes Foundation.

When waste becomes raw material

India generates over 500 million tons of agricultural and agro-industrial residues every year, according to official data of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE).

Across the country, agricultural waste is managed largely by burning, which causes unintended environmental damage, said Shikha Shah, founder and CEO of Altmat, a company that makes fibres, yarn and fabrics from agri and food residues. Similarly, most aspects of conventional textile manufacturing immensely damage the environment. “For instance, polyester is plastic. Consumers and manufacturers both want to shift to better materials, but choosing between environment and economics has been an either-or choice,” she added. This is where agro-waste fabrics come into the picture. When crop waste becomes feedstock for textile manufacturing, both sectors become planet-friendly.

Burning crop waste in a field to prepare for the next round of sowing. Photo by abhiriksh/Wikimedia Commons.

“Manufacturing yarns from agri-waste requires one-sixth of water needed for producing cotton yarns. As we don’t cultivate the raw material and use only waste, we can argue that these are zero water footprint raw materials,” claimed Shah adding that “Eco-textiles, in a way, pulls in threads of sustainability and inclusivity into one fabric”.

Shah said, while on one hand, the work of eco-textile manufacturers is helping reduce fashion’s carbon footprint, it is also benefiting farmers by improving their livelihood prospects in rural areas. “From spending money to dispose of crop residues, farmers are now earning extra income by selling agri-waste,” she said. Her Ahmedabad-based company procures agri-residues by paying between Rs. 90 and Rs. 200 per kilogram depending on the quality, and type of the raw material.

Alternative fibres

Global fibre production has reached well over 100 million tonne per year in 2019 and is expected to rise even further. Developing alternative fibre sources is more critical now than it’s ever been, the WRI, ISC and WUR report said. The research concentrates on southeast Asia and south Asia, including India, because these regions are already critical natural fibre producers and textile hubs. Asia also accounts for almost 40% of the cropland worldwide, leading to massive amounts of potentially usable residues from agricultural activities.

Kaushik Varadan, the owner of Raydan, a Mumbai-based textile firm that specialises in agri-waste fabrics made from lotus, rose, orange, aloe-vera and banana plants, says, “While manufacturing agro-waste fabrics, you generate just 25% post-production waste and because of its bio-degradable nature it is not harmful to the environment. At times, it is also reused. In contrast, the post-production residue of conventional textiles is not eco-friendly and carries no reuse value,” he said.

These new textile innovations are also offering hope to India’s fashion and lifestyle sector that heavily depends on unsustainable fibres and apparel manufacturing practices. Though there is no specific data on India, the U.N. Environment has said that the global fashion industry “is responsible for 20% of global wastewater, 10% of carbon emissions and huge amounts of waste. Every second, one garbage truck full of textiles is land filled or incinerated”. The international green body says “about 60% of materials made into clothing is plastic, which includes polyester, acrylic, and nylon textiles”, signifying the necessity to adopt environment-friendly fabrics.

Banana fabric saree by designer Gautam Gupta. Photo by Asha Gautam.

Delhi-based designer Gautam Gupta is working on a new clothing collection from agri-waste fabrics like banana, bamboo, orange, milk, aloe vera and soya bean. “Your control on the input (raw material) is the first step to a more sustainable output (garment).” Gupta said. “Working with agro-waste fabrics is like promoting responsible and ethical business practices. Being sustainable is increasingly becoming a responsibility given what we are witnessing now. Everyone has a role in preserving nature,” he said.

“Such efforts emphasise that garments made with sustainable textiles can be equally interesting as energy-intensive fast-fashion. High on style but low on carbon footprint, agro-waste textiles have the potential to usher us into an era of guilt-free fashion,” says Gupta.

Designer Gautam Gupta working on a bamboo saree with a weaver. Photo by Asha Gautam.

While previously the main focus of lifestyle entrepreneurs was on achieving economies of scale and improve return on investment from a company’s profit point of view, the changing ecological realities and growing demand from consumers to know the ethical practices is pushing entrepreneurs to respond to it effectively.

Mumbai-based accessory designer Mayura Davda agrees, “Traditionally, sustainable businesses were seen as hobbies and clothing ventures were aimed at maximizing profits. But with the growing eco-consciousness among youngsters, it has emerged as a serious business opportunity. It is prodding fashion entrepreneurs to incorporate the triple bottom line approach – making profits while taking care of the society and environment.”

Davda is using waste fish scales to make hand bags, wallets, laptop cases, mobile covers, and tablet sleeves that simulate the touch and feel of leather. She also offers a similar collection made from pineapple leaves.

Chemically processing agro waste can compromise sustainability

“Globally the eco fibre market is valued at $40.58 billion in 2019, and it is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 4.6% from 2020 to 2027,” according to a recent study by San Francisco head-quartered market research firm Grand View Research.

While agri-waste fabrics demonstrate great promise, experts say, there is still a long road ahead. “Making fibres and textiles from agro-waste is definitely sustainable but if anyone is using chemicals to extract fibres then the sustainability factor gets compromised. As manufacturers are not cultivating the raw material but only using waste so responsibility begins when they start processing it,” said M.S. Parmar, a professor and director (Labs) at Ghaziabad-based Northern India Textile Research Association.

“Most textile manufacturers opt for chemical-based processing methods due to their efficiency, higher yield and potential for permutations that can yield higher quality cellulose with wider applications. While doing so, it is important to be wary of the potential consequences arising from these processes, particularly as environmental and social costs,” said the WRI, ISC and WUR report.

India is one of the biggest textile export and consumption markets worldwide. The domestic textiles and apparel market stood at an estimated $150 billion in 2019-20 and the market size may reach $220 billion in 2026. The larger textiles sector contributed 2% to the country’s GDP, according to the union commerce ministry.

Read more: From opulence to sustainability, Indian fashion gets redesigned


Banner image: Laptop sleeves made with pineapple leather. Photo by MAYU.

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