New prospects for India's castor bean farmers

5th February, 2013 by Martin Wright

From castor oil to carpet tiles: an innovative approach promises new markets for one of India's most resilient crops.

Castor oil may not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no reason to grind it under foot.

Or is there? Because that’s what Interface would like you to do.

The company specialises in modular flooring or carpet tiles, which are typically made out of nylon – in other words, petroleum. But Interface, which has a long track record of looking for more sustainable approaches, is keen to find alternatives. Indeed, it’s committed itself to making all its products free from virgin petroleum by 2020. That’s one of the targets of its groundbreaking and highly ambitious ‘Mission Zero’ vision to eliminate all “negative impacts” on the environment by that date.

It’s a search which has led it to explore, with some success, solutions ranging from recycled fishing nets to commissioning artisan women weavers in Tamil Nadu to fashion exclusive products out of finely woven strands of locally sourced materials, such as river grass, banana bark and cotton [see GF special edition, ‘Monsoons and Miracles’, p28].

So, why castor oil? First, because it’s practical: researchers found that the oil from the castor beans makes excellent source material for carpet tiles. Second, because unlike many plants grown as biofuels, castor plants rarely compete with food. They thrive on marginal drylands, where most other crops would struggle to survive, and they only need water once every 25 days. Once in place, they help guard against soil erosion. A four-month growing cycle leaves the land free for other productive uses for two-thirds of the year.

Over 70% of the world’s supply comes from India, particularly Gujarat and Karnataka. And for the castor oil farmers, Interface offers a promising new market for one of the country’s most resilient crops. This is particularly helpful to them at a time when erratic weather patterns associated with climate change is making farming a much more uncertain business than before. As one Gujarati farmer told me on a visit there in 2011: “We don’t know what to plant and when; the weather doesn’t tell us anymore.” 

The new product, known as Fotosfera, is made up of 63% yarn from castor oil and 37% conventional nylon. There are two different aesthetics to choose from: either a heavy textured surface, or a ‘microtuft’ using less yarn. It was launched in India at the Green Building Conference in Hyderabad last October, and pitched firmly at businesses looking to raise their green game. As Interface’s Raj Menon explains: “A growing number of companies are setting high environmental standards for their offices. So, suppliers are under pressure to come up with products which meet those standards, and this is one way in which they can do so.” Fotosfera not only satisfies criteria for reduced dependence on petroleum, but it also has a strong social story – involving supply from Indian farmers into the supply chain – which has an immediate appeal to multinational companies keen to present a well-rounded sustainability picture.

In this respect it has much in common with its sister product, ‘Biosfera’, which is made of recycled yarn partly sourced from recovered nylon fishing nets.

Both products carry a small premium, Menon explains, which reflects the work that has gone into their development, as well as the added value which their sustainability performance should command. But it’s important that this isn’t seen as an expensive product, he adds. “Moving away from petroleum should not be viewed as something which people cannot afford.” – Martin Wright

This feature was produced in collaboration with Interface for the Special Edition 'India: Innovation Nation'.

Photos: Interface

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