«We use about one third of the energy needed to craft animal leather». Gabriel Moreno, Fiquetex, winner of the Oxford University Best Postgraduate Idea
Revitalizing the discarded parts of fique plants
Young Oxford University student Gabriel Moreno just had to look at the lush vegetation blooming in his home country, Colombia. Fique is a natural fiber that comes from the leaves of plants in the genus Furcraea. Colombia is the world’s leading producer of fique fiber.
With an amount of more than 20,000 tons per year, people exploit only four percent of the fique plant. Gabriel Moreno and his father Alejandro turned their attention to the unutilized part of the plant in order to revitalize it and upcycle it in their vegan leather and fabric.
They founded Fiquetex, a balanced combination between the scientific knowledge of Alejandro. A textile engineer with a thirty-year experience in the industry, and the business and economic skills of Gabriel, who is currently studying Latin American Economics at the University of Oxford. Awarded the entrepreneurship prize at the university’s All Innovate competition. This allowed him to fund Fiquetex and set up the production line of fique fabrics and leathers. Following a five-year extensive research, the father-and-son duo developed and patented two sustainable, biodegradable and durable materials. sSourced from fique that could really prove key in the creation of a circular economy, overruling synthetic fibers; catering to conscious consumers who want to purchase more sustainable products that don’t have a negative impact on the environment.
Fique plant cultivation
Furcraea is an adaptable plant: it grows everywhere in Colombia. From sea-level to an altitude of 3,000 meters in the Andes. The geographical position of Colombia, located just on the Equator, provides the perfect climate conditions for the fique plant to grow. The sunny weather and the warm temperatures make it flourish all year; without the need for any additional water, pesticides or fertilizers. Unlike cotton, which requires a generous amount of water to grow, the fique plant grows spontaneously. In addition like all succulents, it requires little water to survive – it stores water inside its large leaves. In three to four years, fique plants grow to full size. Reaching a production of one to six kilograms of fiber per year.
At Fiquetex’s facility, in the south of the Aburrá Valley in Colombia, local farmers hand-harvest the leaves of fique plants. This is to say that they cut them from the bottom to the top of the plant, getting four or five leaves per plant depending on its size. Furthermore, the leaves go through a decortication process – their fiber is separated from the surrounding leaf tissue. The long fibers are extracted to be shaped into products like strings; the leaf is compressed so that the juices exit and used for other purposes such as the production of pharmaceuticals. Whereas, Fiquetex keeps and processes the small fibers, breathing life into two sustainable alternatives to synthetic fibers and leathers: Fique Fabric and Fique Vegan Leather.
Fique Vegan Leather
Fique Vegan Leather is a nonwoven material coming from fique fibers bonded with natural rubber latex, extracted from the rubber tree. The short fique fibers used to manufacture it are less likely to break, rip and come apart, providing a durable and resistant product. Neither synthetic fibers nor synthetic resins are employed to craft this leather. The leather is coated with a water-based resin for added protection. This is to ensure durability and give the material the same finish and aspect of traditional leather. «During our production process, we use about one third of the energy needed to craft animal leather» Moreno explained. Not only fique plants have zero greenhouse gas emissions, which is instead typical of ruminants, but they also contribute to purifying the air.
Ruminant livestock can produce 200 grams of methane per day, which is equivalent to five kilograms in Co2 units. Globally, the livestock sector accounts for the equivalent of seven gigatons of Co2 every year, according to the United Nations. Instead of releasing substantial amounts of methane into the atmosphere, the Colombian succulent absorbs Co2 and returns it as clean air. Fique Vegan Leather can provide a sustainable solution to various sectors of industry. In the automotive industry, it can be used to cover the seats of vehicles; in interior design, it can substitute animal leather coating for furniture; above all, it can be widely employed in the fashion industry to craft anything. From a leather jacket all the way to footwear and accessories. Fiquetex aims to tackle the fashion textile industry to address the environmental issue caused by the production of animal leather.
The second type of textile Gabriel Moreno and his father manufacture at Fiquetex is Fique Fabric. The most natural material of the production line. For instance it is used just as it is from the plant extraction, without the need to integrate additional materials. When he presented his project to the All Innovate university competition, Gabriel Moreno used Fique Fabric to knit a bag that could have various purposes and could replace plastic bags on countless occasions. «The production of this Fique Fabric bag accounted for ten percent of the amount of energy needed to make the same product in nylon», Moreno stated.
Fique Fabric has multiple applications, ranging from packaging material to eco-friendly carrier bags. Not to mention home cleaning products like scouring pads for everyday use. As Colombia is the second biggest flower exporter in the world, Fiquetex has thought of their material as a substitute of plastic-like sheets used to wrap cut flowers. In an effort to reduce plastic waste and limit the use of petroleum-based products. The two textiles sourced from fique are both nonwoven, which prevents the fibers from breaking apart and results in a long-lasting material. Fique Fabric is lighter, lower-density, 250 grams per square meter. Whereas, Fique Vegan Leather is heavier, denser, 550 grams per square meter.
Biodegradability of Fique Fabric and Fique Vegan Leather
Both Fique Fabric and Fique Vegan Leather are part of a circular economy system. When buried in the ground, they will start to decompose. When wet, the material will break down into its natural components. Hydrogen, starch, proteins and saccharides begin to disintegrate and add nutrition back to the soil. A fique plant could grow in the place where they bury the product.
In optimal conditions, somewhere like Colombia where the weather is warm and sunny, the materials biodegrade within 100 days. In adverse conditions, somewhere like the UK where the climate is harsher, the products should decompose within eight months. Furthermore, fique fabric is 100 percent biodegradable. Fique Vegan Leather reaches ninety-eight percent biodegradability. One of the highest biodegradability rates among the current substitutes of vegan leathers. Fiquetex products recently became PETA-approved vegan, gaining more ground in the vegan leather industry every day.
Lampoon: the benefits of fique
Thanks to its low-waste cultivation and the possibility to process it through a mechanical process that requires no chemicals, fique qualifies as one of the most sustainable fibers available on the market. Overruling other eco-friendly alternatives which require intensive farming, artificial light, chemicals and are much more expensive than conventional materials. Fiquetex aims to provide a cost-efficient option which is not just for an elite. They want their products to be affordable to all, so that everyone can collectively contribute to phasing out animal leather purchases. «The vegan leathers that are currently available on the market are quite expensive and mostly destined to luxury brands. We want fique also for mid-range shops» Moreno said.
Other than being economical and harmless to the environment, fique production and cultivation provides employment to the farmers. They live in the rural areas of Colombia. Equipped with the technical skills they need to work in a sustainable manner. With a solidified manufacturing process, Fiquetex will start producing in June; aiming to export eighty percent of the production to the markets of Italy, the UK and the US. Fique encourages a departure from conventional materials. In addition, it poses a challenge to the controversial established leather industry, which is increasingly falling out of fashion for its impact on the environment and on animal welfare. To conclude, the vegan leather market usually grows by fifty percent every year; reflecting the increasing consumer demand of products that are more and more compatible with our planet.
Colombian company founded by father and son Alejandro and Gabriel Moreno. The aim was to provide a viable solution to animal leather and synthetic fabrics.