There’s no magic wand to reverse the environmental impact of climate change, but significant headway can be made by adopting alternative lifestyles and materials. Be it opting for vegan silk and clean energy or consuming microbe-based proteins, alternativism is the crying need of the hour
In March, English fashion designer Stella McCartney introduced the world’s first clothes made with Mylo mushroom leather, a sustainable leather alternative made from mycelium, the infinitely renewable underground root system of mushrooms. Developed by California-based material solutions company Bolt Threads, Mylo is certified bio-based unlike most synthetic leathers.
Not just McCartney but luxury fashion house Hermès, too, introduced in March a bag made from fine mycelium. Interestingly, mycelium grows best in a lab with mulch, air and water, and is designed to have minimal environmental impact. It takes days, not years like raising cattle, helping save water, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and protecting vital ecosystems like the Amazon from deforestation.
In a rapidly changing world, going green, consuming less and using resources optimally are taking centrestage. What’s also gaining momentum is alternativism. While there’s no magic wand to reverse the environmental impact of climate change, significant headway can be made by adopting alternative lifestyles and materials. Be it consuming microbe-based proteins or opting for vegan silk or clean energy solutions, alternativism is the need of the hour.
A 2019 special report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that adoption of a plant-based diet is a major opportunity to mitigate climate change.
Today, there are many food companies that are using alternate resources to reduce their carbon footprint. The latest discovery is microbe-based mozzarella cheese made by US-based Superbrewed Food. It is neither dairy nor plant-based, but a microbe-based protein made through anaerobic fermentation, like brewed food. Just the way barley turns into beer or cabbage into kimchi, Superbrewed Food has created the protein by fermenting a deactivated probiotic. One teaspoon of the protein delivers more than 20% of the daily B12 needed.
In India, too, there are several mock meat brands like Evolved Foods, Veggie Champ, Good Dot, Vezlay, Vegeta Gold, etc, that are working to create healthy and affordable meat alternatives by using grains and plant proteins. Mumbai-based Evo Foods, for instance, has created a plant-based liquid egg without cholesterol, salmonella risk and animal cruelty.
Experts say the emergence of alternatives as a category has made consumers access them more than ever before. “Brands are innovating and creating credible and sustainable alternatives to traditional materials/consumables such as leather, wool, silk, curd, milk, paneer, meat, eggs, seafood, etc,” says Bengaluru-based Pradeep Rao, co-founder and CEO of Evolved Foods, a plant-based protein and mock meat brand. Rao, who has launched two variants of plant protein—Alt Protein and Alt Meat—has also deployed resource-saving fittings and is now evaluating powering the production unit with solar energy. “The biggest hurdle to change is the lack of credible alternatives. The innovations taking place in this segment have the potential to bridge this gap. Ease of access to such products can help the conscious consumer base to increase and lead to incremental innovations in the sustainable alternatives industry,” adds Rao.
A cruelty-free lifestyle is synonymous with sustainability, believes Shivnayan Aggarwal, lead, The Plant Factor, an annual campaign for plant-based alternatives that is organised by Delhi’s Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations to provide mentorship and funding to winners of the annual programmme. “We will see more alternatives in the future, a reality that the consumer is aware of and which allows them to purchase brands that meet their value,” says Aggarwal.
Some nutritionists, however, doubt mock meats, as they believe a vegan diet does not provide enough vitamin B12. “I am not in favour of mock meats… not sure of what chemicals are being used in the process. The long-term benefits of consuming mock meats are still unknown, and it may be a long time before we discover those,” says nutritionist Kavita Devgan.
It’s also important to fully understand the vegan lifestyle before adopting it, advises chef and entrepreneur Sanjeev Kapoor. “Some people can’t manage to follow it through… any step taken towards switching to a cruelty-free lifestyle follows a process,” he says.
The manufacturing of textiles is one of the most polluting industries on the planet. According to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, more than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing under-utilisation and lack of recycling.
Delhi-based Doodlage is a sustainable fashion brand that creates “season-less” garments and upcycles waste to create accessories, soft furnishing products, paper, etc. “All the fabrics are made with ethical production units and our packaging is also designed to be plastic-free,” says co-founder Kriti Tula, who recently launched a handwoven and plant-dyed sari collection. The campaign, called ‘So Susheel’, aims to revive saris that have been tucked away at the back of closets by redesigning them into garments one can wear again.
Fashion creates waste across industries, be it logistics, animal farming or agriculture. For instance, 1 kg of cotton, cultivated as part of the agricultural industry in the country, uses more than 10,000 litre of fresh water. It also uses 24% of the insecticides and 11% of the pesticides produced globally. “Every time we consume fresh conventional cotton, we use large quantities of water, insecticides and pesticides, which eventually seep into groundwater and waterways. About 70 million trees are cut every year to produce plant-based fibre. Fashion uses 342 million oil barrels to make plastic-based fabrics like polyester and nylon; 23% of all chemicals produced worldwide are used for the textile industry,” says Tula, adding, “Recycling or upcycling can use natural resources to create fresh material. Working locally reduces the carbon footprint of products that travel back and forth between production, packaging, warehousing, quality checking before reaching the store or consumer.”
Kolkata-based handcrafted footwear brand Kallisto uses faux leather, bypassing materials derived from animals or which are byproducts of animal husbandry, including leather, silk, wool and fur. “The uppers are made of fabric and faux leather, and the sole is made of durable rubber. Our packaging is done in cloth bags and recyclable boxes… and we only ship via surface rather than express as this has a lower carbon footprint. We focus on quality rather than quantity… excess stock is a huge contributor to waste generation in the fashion industry,” says Kriti Kanodia, the founder and creative head.
There is a long way to go, however, for vegan fashion, feels Kanodia. “Those who are vegan still use leather bags, shoes, pashmina shawls and fur coats. We are not really used to an alternative choice for everything. We need to be more conscious of what we are buying.. where it is coming from,” she says.
Another sustainable fashion brand is Tamarind Chutney, which uses raw, or ahimsa, silk. While most silk harvesting requires silkworms to be killed in the cocoon stage, ahimsa silk is produced without killing the silkworms. This allows the completion of metamorphosis of the silkworm to its moth stage. Breaking the cycle of fast fashion, the brand sources fabrics directly from artisans and combines them with surplus fabric to create garments. “Conventional cotton is extremely water-intensive, so we use leftover fabric from factories for a large number of our garments… this contributes to the circular economy,” says Tanvi Bikhchandani, co-founder, Tamarind Chutney.
Despite its popularity, ahimsa silk needs to be taken up at a larger level with individuals and corporations, says Hyderabad-based Kusuma Rajaiah, a 2006 patent holder of ahimsa silk. He has a growing capacity (Ahimsa Silks is his patent product and brand name) of about 10,000 meters per month as the first production takes about 60-90 days’ lead time. “This silk has properties of air permeability, sweat absorption, good fall and an all-season wear,” he says, adding, “The innovation has given high wages to handloom weavers and natural colour dyers… designers can earn good returns via exports.” The cost of ahimsa silk fabric ranges from Rs 850 to Rs 1,800 per metre.
There are other fashion ventures, too, that are working towards making the world green. Lenzing, which supplies the global textile and non-woven industry with high-quality, man-made cellulose fibre manufactured from sustainable sources, will enter the footwear segment in India with a botanic shoe concept. Lenzing, which has partnered with brands such as UGG, Converse, Native, Gant, TOMS, Allbirds, Alceste, Veja, H&M, Soludos and Leguano, has conceptualised Tencel fibres for footwear using source ingredients from nature. The shoes, which will be smooth to the skin and breathable, will have the raw material wood sourced from responsibly-managed forestry and follow an environmentally-friendly production process.
Similarly, Mirzapur-headquartered Obeetee, a sustainable carpet and rug brand, which has showrooms in Delhi and New York, ensures that its manufacturing processes are carefully designed to conserve water. It uses renewable energy, natural dyes and recycled yarns. All the materials are ethically sourced, so that no animals are harmed in the procurement process. International home fashion brand The Rug Republic, too, uses recycled bicycle tubes, PET yarns extracted from recycled water bottles, recycled silk yarns and other multi-fibre textiles to create its vibrant rugs and carpets.
Then there is Delhi-based Chuk, which manufactures green tableware. It makes use of bagasse pulp to create products that are lightweight, flexible, strong and suitable for use in microwave oven. They are also oil- and water-resistant, a differentiating factor for tableware. This is achieved by incorporating food-grade chemicals (which are FDA-approved and used in minuscule quantities during production) during the manufacturing process.
When it comes to transportation, solar, battery or electric solutions can have a huge impact. Electric cars, in fact, are the most commercially available solution along with thermoelectric technology, helping reduce fuel consumption. Zero-emission vehicle technologies include plug-in hybrids, liquid nitrogen vehicles, hydrogen vehicles (utilise fuel cells or converted internal combustion engines), compressed air vehicles—typically recharged by slow (home) or fast (road station) electric compressors—flywheel energy storage vehicles and solar-powered cars.
New fuels, too, are needed to comply with the limits on sulphur/carbon emissions and reduce GHG emissions. Some options are bioethanol (used instead of petrol), which is made from corn and sugarcane, and biodiesel, which is made from vegetable oils and animal fats. Tech giant Google, in fact, is building new routing models, which will optimise routes for lower fuel consumption based on factors like road incline and traffic congestion.
The shift to clean energy, however, is a challenge as alternative options typically demand a significant price premium and, therefore, limit accessibility, feels Noida-based Rajat Verma, co-founder and CEO, Lohum, a lithium-ion battery manufacturing and recycling company. “We have to ensure that electric solutions are accessible to all. As the demand to consume energy, food and materials rises, the forecasted electricity demand will also rise in the next 20 years and India will need to add additional power systems. Sustainable energy production systems and materials, reusing and recycling can add value with alternative solutions. Battery materials, if properly recycled, can be used again without degradation. In many countries, 40% of copper production comes from recycled copper as it requires a tenth of the energy demand as compared to mined copper… the same can be done with batteries,” he says.
Carpooling, too, can reduce greenhouse emissions. Pune-based sRide is a social car- and bike-pooling app that can help over two million commuters daily. Bengaluru-based urban mobility solutions provider Routematic, too, helps companies manage round-the-clock employee shifts. In 2019, it reduced 2.56 lakh tonnes of carbon and covered a distance of over 167 million km. This saved around 33.26 million litre of fuel and powered over 42,000 shared trips equivalent to planting 6,250 trees.
San Francisco-based startup Rainforest Connection, too, uses old recycled smartphones, powered by solar energy, to save trees. Then there is clean tech startup Ecolibrium Energy, which offers smart grid tech solutions to optimise power use. It has presence in India, Malaysia and UAE with expansion plans in south-east Asia, Middle East and Europe.
Minimising one’s use of single-use products is advisable, but it’s also important to make an informed choice, as alternatives can’t always be a viable option due to many reasons. The biodegradable water bottle, for instance, is good to use, but requires a high heat and moisture environment to break down the polymer as it can’t be naturally degraded. Paper bags, too, lead to deforestation and are not necessarily a sustainable alternative. Similarly, bamboo straws are a good option, but often not sustainable—somebody living in the UK using bamboo items will contribute to a high carbon footprint as bamboo grows in China. In such cases, local options work best.
Air-transported materials also contribute to emissions. According to a 2020 post on Our World in Data (a scientific online publication), emissions can be very high for a few products transported by air, emitting 50 times more CO2eq (equivalent carbon dioxide) than by a boat per tonne km. Some air-freighted foods like asparagus, green beans and berries are also highly perishable. Shipping one kg of avocados by boat from Mexico to the UK, for instance, would generate 0.21 kg CO2eq in transport emissions, around 8% of the avocados’ total footprint.
The biggest hurdle to change is the lack of credible alternatives. The innovations taking place in this segment have the potential to bridge this gap.
— Pradeep Rao, co-founder & CEO, Evolved Foods
As consumers, we need to be more conscious of what we are buying… where it is coming from.
—Kriti Kanodia, founder & creative head, Kallisto, a Kolkata-based handcrafted footwear brand
Some people adopt a vegan lifestyle, but can’t follow it through… any step taken towards switching to a cruelty-free lifestyle follows a process.
—Sanjeev Kapoor, chef & entrepreneur