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Why Sustainable Kapok Fiber Has Promising Potential for Eco Fashion

Scattered around the equator, the kapok tree yields pods that contain a fluffy fruit, five times lighter than cotton, long used by locals as stuffing material. But in today’s race to find fibers for fashion that aren’t just sustainable, but biodegradable, this overlooked source is beginning to gain traction.

Pioneering the advancement of kapok in apparel is Flocus, which doubles as the name of the company and its trademarked product. The company was one of more than a dozen startups incubated by Fashion for Good’s Plug and Play Accelerator in 2018.

“Some people are actually saying we are doing what happened to cotton 200 years ago,” said Jeroen Muijsers, co-founder of Flocus, which is headquartered in Italy and operates in Indonesia, the world’s kapok capital. “This is the start where we industrialize the processing of the fruit which will then create a higher demand and will initiate planting more trees.”

Unlike water-hungry cotton, kapok uses virtually no water and requires no irrigation.

But also unlike cotton, kapok doesn’t grow in fields—or in the nomenclature of this canopy tree, orchards.

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“It is all spaced out because in the last 80 years, nobody has really been focusing on doing anything commercial with this crop,” Muijsers said. “We want to initiate the first part of making it more of a commercial product.”

Flocus co-founder and COO Sara Cicognani said uses of the kapok tree all but disappeared in 1940 when synthetics devoured the textile market, as she and Muijsers found out when they launched their exploratory campaign in 2015.

“When we actually went into researching the gene, we went into gene banks and digital banks had almost no data on the tree. It was about to become endangered,” Cicognani said. “We decided, OK, we have to plant trees and we have to fix the supply chain to actually give a chance to this fiber.”

The priority for Flocus is planting kapok trees wherever it can in Indonesia, and then whatever climates can suit them elsewhere.

“The key to unlocking the possibilities with the fiber for the textile industry is agricultural development because on that level there has been too little research. The next step is scaling,” said Muijsers, adding that another 185 million trees would need to be planted to meet market demand.

In the meantime, clothing made with kapok is starting to show up at retail.

Japanese clothing maker Muji is promoting shirts with a 26 percent kapok blend, and tentree, an e-commerce clothier in Vancouver that plants 10 trees for every item sold, is selling shirts and jackets with about 20 percent kapok and 80 percent organic cotton.

“tentree started off 10 years ago by buying T-shirts and putting really cool graphics on them and taking pictures at a time when Instagram was really taking off,” said Ludovic Duran, tentree’s product commercialization director.

The men’s kapok shirt by tentree, made with 20 percent kapok, 80 percent organic cotton. Courtesy of tentree

Being five times lighter than cotton, kapok doesn’t have the durability to be the majority fabric in a garment, but it offers compelling environmental benefits.

“Because it’s a tree it’s sequestering oxygen as it’s growing, so that’s quite a unique differentiator from cotton,” said Kathleen Buckingham, tentree’s sustainability director. “But it was taken over, to a certain extent, by polyester in the 1970s so kapok didn’t grow. There isn’t the planting stock at the nursery level, so it needs the support of planters and the industry—like Flocus.”

Duran doesn’t expect there to be much beyond a 20 percent ratio in the near future.

“In the next 3 to 5 years I don’t see any textile being 100 percent kapok, unless you’re talking about insulation. It’s one of those fibers that’s going to have to be blended,” he said. “Especially as the supply chain modernizes itself and becomes more efficient. There’s more to learn about the fiber. If you look at the Higg Index, you won’t find kapok. It’s kind of in the back corner.”

Muijsers said kapok’s fiber length constrains the material’s potential.

“Kapok is a very short fiber, so that is one thing on the agricultural side we hope can be improved but it will take years,” he said. “It is currently on average 14 millimeters and that is why you cannot go to much higher percentages. Yes, in some yarns, you could get to 40 percent, but the important aspect is the fiber is five times lighter, so when you look at the care label you look at 20 or 30 percent in the weight of the product, but in amount of fibers, you have five times the fiber… If we would add in a lot more fiber, then the yarn would be too weak, so in other products, like a nonwoven, or for installation in jackets or for bedding, there we can already work for 50 to 80 percent kapok.”

Labor pains

Apart from being all but ignored until recently, kapok also faces labor challenges—specifically the risks associated with harvesting the fluffy fruits.

People who don’t use safety tools when harvesting from the uppermost branches can slip and fall when it’s rainy, Muijsers said. “So we are working to introduce safe harvesting and there is no standard available. As textile people, we are working with tree-climbing organizations to set up a safe harvesting [standard operating procedure].”

A large Ceiba (kapok) tree in forest in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador. Getty Images

With all the risk and manual effort involved, finding harvesters isn’t easy.

Cicognani said Flocus quickly realized it would have to fix the supply chain to eliminate any ethical concerns about labor.

What kapok needs is its version of the cotton gin, but before it gets that far, it needs first to incentivize farmers to plant trees, and then harvest the crop as many as four years later.

“We have nurseries where we grow the trees up until around a year old when they’re actually strong enough to be planted in soil. We donate them to communities and farmers and we pretty much give them a new income model where we buy the pods every year so they have a fixed income every year,” Cicognani said, adding that the kapok tree is regenerative and good for the farmers’ soil.

Muijsers said government benefits could also help entice farmers.

“These trees, they store a lot of carbon for a very long time, so then you get into a model where you’re really making a good impact on a carbon storage system, which could turn into a carbon credit,” Muijsers said, noting the “economic value.”

The Flocus founders said working with the Indonesian government hasn’t been as fruitful as they’d hoped.

“To be honest, we are currently not getting much support from Indonesia because it’s such a small supply chain,” Muijsers said. The nation cancelled a former “ministry of kapok” five years ago because of little interest in the small industry.

“We expect somebody to come knock on our door pretty soon,” Cicognani added.

With the groundwork laid on how agroforestry, fiber production and attracting farmers can work, what Flocus needs now is money.

“This is the only missing link, I believe, to get to a point where we will be starting orchards, where we will be looking at the older varieties which are available worldwide, but has not been looked at,” Muijsers said.

Right now, Flocus’s interest in raising around $2 million is “too small for venture capitalists,” Muijsers said.

But with the promise of supplementing cotton, Flocus is likely to get noticed by rivals either trying to challenge Flocus’ trademark, or developing their own fibers. But Cicognani believes Flocus is “ahead of the competition by at least two or three years.”

Muijsers added that he welcomes the competition, saying “we are the pioneer.”

“We believe within the next two years we will be able to secure the most fruit which is available from Indonesia,” he said, insisting Flocus isn’t “afraid of competition.”

Design challenges

Kapok’s other challenge might be its lack of catwalk appeal.

At tentree, “fashion” isn’t part of the conversation.

tentree prefers “being trend-relevant” to its outdoorsy customers, instead of focusing on fashion fads.

Andrea Ramos recently graduated with a masters degree in innovation in sustainability from the Accademia Aldo Galli in Como, Italy, 210 miles to the north of Flocus headquarters in Forli. As part of the program, she did an internship with Flocus to experiment with alternative fibers indigenous to her native Mexico.

Ramos, who completed her undergraduate degree in textile design at Mexico City’s Universidad Iberoamericana, said she had previously worked with ixtles, stiff plant fibers from the agave and yucca succulents.

Ramos told Sourcing Journal she appreciates kapok’s soft hand and antibacterial, water-repellant qualities.

“The not-so-great thing was that fabrics could only have a small percentage of the fiber,” she said, though she managed to pack 50 percent kapok into one garment.

Concurrently, Ramos was doing a project with a company in Italy that she said was testing printers that used less water and more sustainable inks. Combining those features with kapok’s water-repellant characteristics proved for an interesting design experience, especially as she dyed the fabrics in her kitchen with fruits and other natural elements.

“The printer worked perfectly on the fabrics. It did look a bit dull, but that’s because of the wax the fabric has,” Ramos said. “It looks very natural, almost like from a vintage store.”

Ramos said that in Mexico, the properties of alternative fibers like kapok and ixtle are well known because they’ve been used since pre-Hispanic times, so they’re not seen as new or exciting.

“They see it as a normal fiber, not really something innovative, and I think that’s why it’s not growing because they’re seeing it as something very old that doesn’t really have any function,” she said. “It was very hard to find suppliers [for this project] and the ones I found were very small and they were in very remote communities because here in Latin America, the ones who usually harvest and work with fiber are indigenous communities.”

Ramos said it’s incumbent upon designers, companies and the national governments where the fibers are grown to keep the momentum going.

“I think if the [Flocus] model is copied by other countries which also have that fiber—Peru is one of the greatest countries with the fiber—I think it would be very, very scalable,” she said.

Muijsers said kapok is known to have originated among the Mayans in Guatemala. Flocus operates in Indonesia because it has the highest density of trees in the world, but that doesn’t mean other equatorial countries couldn’t provide just as fertile ground.

“[Kapok] grows in India, in Sri Lanka, in the Philippines, in all the southeast Asian countries,” Muijsers said. “Then in Africa, you have it in Kenya, Uganda, Senegal, and then you have central and south Africa.” But most don’t have enough trees to build an industry, he pointed out.

Cicognani said Flocus wants to open a second facility in Indonesia before branching out.

She and Muijsers hope Indonesia will see the benefits of producing textiles domestically to reduce their textile import deficit, profit from carbon credits, and become a leader in procuring fibers from this under-the-radar tree.

“I guess innovation is not the first nature of Indonesia, but [the] economic value is absolutely there,” Muijsers said.

Cicognani is optimistic that Indonesia will wake up to the potential gold mine it’s sitting on.

“It all revolves around income, so when they see that there is an opportunity for people to raise their social status, there will be an opportunity to do some further experiment,” she said.