A Rainforest, Palm Trees and Blanks that Make for Buttons

A rainforest nut that falls off a huge palm tree provides an organic alternative to the ubiquitous button required by the fashion industry as a necessary accessory and at times even an embellishment. Ecuador-based Trafino SA is one of the largest enterprises in the business of exporting these ‘blanks’ made from the tagua nut. texfash.com talks to its Executive President Ignacio Maya to know more. 

Long Story, Cut Short
  • The tagua or the corozo offers to the fashion world just what it is looking for to reduce its carbon footprint and also promote and conserve tropical forests and its biodiversity in some regions of the world.
  • By using corozo buttons, fashion brands allow thousands of native inhabitants to make a living from collecting corozo nuts without destroying the forests.
  • Ecuador exports only blanks to corozo button manufacturers around the world.
Ecuador exports between 700 and 1,200 tonnes of corozo blanks per year. In 2011, the demand for the corozo skyrocketed, with 2,000 tonnes (about 1.5 billion blanks) exported. The goal is for demand to return to these levels because it helps people not to cut down the forests where corozo grows wild, since they can live on what the forest offers them.
Forest Wealth Ecuador exports between 700 and 1,200 tonnes of corozo blanks per year. In 2011, the demand for the corozo skyrocketed, with 2,000 tonnes (about 1.5 billion blanks) exported. The goal is for demand to return to these levels because it helps people not to cut down the forests where corozo grows wild, since they can live on what the forest offers them. Trafino SA

It grows wild. Humankind may not yet have figured out a way to plant it, but it has learnt to collect its seed or the tagua nut to make the world’s only organic planet-friendly buttons.

The rainforest nut that grows among several other regions in the tropical rainforests of Ecuador, plops to the ground once it can hang on no more to the large-seeded palm tree (Phytelephas aequatorialis), and the community around, especially women, collect the nuts to process it to make blanks for buttons, jewellery, artefacts and lots more. 

The story goes that the native Ecuadorians were not quite aware of the uses of its rainforest nut often referred to as vegetable ivory and also called corozo among several other names, that popped off the huge palm trees in the tropical forests of the fourth-smallest country in South America. Found mainly along the Ecuadorian coast and the Amazon forests, Germans are credited with the discovery of the corozo, but they kept it a secret for long until the Italians also unearthed it. There are records showing the use of corozo as buttons as early as the 1850s.

The commercialisation of the tagua seed button began in the middle of the 19th century but lost out soon after World War II as advances in technology meant development of new materials in a shorter time and the advent of low-cost synthetic plastic buttons.  

Once again as the demand for planet-friendly materials surges in a rapidly increasing do or die global climate crises scenario, the corozo — where each corozo blank becomes a button — offers to the fashion world just what it is looking for to reduce its carbon footprint and also promote and conserve tropical forests and its biodiversity in some regions, especially Ecuador, supposedly the only country in the world that produces and exports this product.

By replacing plastic with corozo buttons, brands contribute to keeping tropical forests standing, reducing the carbon footprint, curbing global warming; besides, as a durable and resistant material, it contributes to circularity too.
Natural Indeed By replacing plastic with corozo buttons, brands contribute to keeping tropical forests standing, reducing the carbon footprint, curbing global warming; besides, as a durable and resistant material, it contributes to circularity too. Trafino SA

Corozo is not only the best sustainable alternative accessory for the fashion and clothing industry in terms of design and durability, but also has a beneficial environmental and social component. By replacing plastic with corozo buttons, brands contribute to keeping tropical forests standing, reducing the carbon footprint, curbing global warming; besides, as a durable and resistant material, it contributes to circularity too.

By using corozo buttons, fashion brands also allow thousands of native inhabitants to make a living from collecting corozo nuts without destroying the forests as also protecting their source of income. The corozo represents an important source of income for hundreds of artisans who skilfully transform the nuts into blanks one by one, handmade, and in pure tradition.

Depending on the demand, Ecuador exports between 700 and 1,200 tonnes of corozo blanks per year. These quantities are equivalent to a range between 500 and 900 million buttons. In 2011, the demand for the corozo skyrocketed, with 2,000 tonnes (about 1.5 billion blanks) exported. The goal is for demand to return to these levels because it helps people not to cut down the forests where corozo grows wild, since they can live on what the forest offers them.

Process & LCA

Being a seed/fruit, the corozo is 100% biodegradable. Once collected, the corozo seeds are dried for 60 days, then cut into slices from which the button blank is extracted, a semi-finished product that Ecuador exports to more than 20 countries, where button manufacturers finish it by adding a design. The buttons, if thrown into the garden, would become compost for the earth. The only risk that the corozo poses is the bite of snakes during the collecting process in the forest. To avoid this, collectors wear knee-high boots.

Colour & Dye

The corozo button can be dyed in any colour and the process does not affect its natural condition. Companies in Italy, Germany and other countries offer corozo dyes, some also offering plant-based ones. Button manufacturers must comply with local legislation and treat the wastewater that remains after dyeing. There is also the option of using corozo in its natural white colour, similar to the tone and appearance of ivory, which is why it is also known as vegetable ivory. 

Once again as the demand for planet-friendly materials surges in a rapidly increasing do or die global climate crises scenario, the corozo — where each corozo blank becomes a button — offers to the fashion world just what it is looking for to reduce its carbon footprint and also promote and conserve tropical forests and its biodiversity in some regions, especially Ecuador, supposedly the only country in the world that produces and exports this product.
Blank-a-Button Once again as the demand for planet-friendly materials surges in a rapidly increasing do or die global climate crises scenario, the corozo — where each corozo blank becomes a button — offers to the fashion world just what it is looking for to reduce its carbon footprint and also promote and conserve tropical forests and its biodiversity in some regions, especially Ecuador, supposedly the only country in the world that produces and exports this product. Trafino SA

The Trafino story

Ecuador exports only blanks to corozo button manufacturers around the world.  And one company that takes the lead in exporting this vegetal ivory is the Manta-based Trafino SA, founded by Francisco Luna, an entrepreneur with a deep social and environmental vision. Currently serving 80% of the world market, it claims to have emerged a leader in the export of corozo blanks within five years. Around 700 artisans work with Trafino, a significant percentage being women.

“We started exporting from day one and the year was 1988. We are currently carrying out a census of collectors, but we estimate that there are around 5,000 families that sustainably collect the seed in the forests,” Ignacio Maya, the Executive President at Trafino SA, tells texfash.com.

Trafino acquires the blanks from around 90 independently-run artisan factories. The artisans, in turn, acquire the raw material (corozo nuts) from the collectors. It supports the collectors with training so that they can collect good quality tagua seeds and properly care for and manage the tagua palms and the forest itself. Artisans are also trained how to handle simple machinery to turn the seed into tagua blanks.

With support from the United Nations Small Grants Programme, Ecuadorian government institutions, Trafino with its NGO, Forever Lung, the Matapalo and Ceprocafe communities now have machinery and infrastructure to add value to sustainably collected corozo nuts, improving living standards and strengthening their commitment to protecting the forests.
Raising Standards With support from the United Nations Small Grants Programme, Ecuadorian government institutions, Trafino with its NGO, Forever Lung, the Matapalo and Ceprocafe communities now have machinery and infrastructure to add value to sustainably collected corozo nuts, improving living standards and strengthening their commitment to protecting the forests. Trafino SA

With support from the United Nations Small Grants Programme, Ecuadorian government institutions, Trafino with its NGO, Forever Lung, the Matapalo and Ceprocafe communities now have machinery and infrastructure to add value to sustainably collected corozo nuts, improving living standards and strengthening their commitment to protecting the forests. The goal is to provide the more than 100 communities that collect corozo nuts with this infrastructure and machinery.

The company exports to China, India, Japan and Korea in Asia, and all over Europe. Some brands that use the corozo from Trafino include Ted Baker, Polo, Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Abercrombie & Fitch, Perry Ellis, Burberry, J. Crew, Reiss, Banana Republic, Tommy Hilfiger, Raymond, Zodiac, Blackberrys, Timberland, Massimo Dutti, Mango, Marc Jacobs, Max Mara, Pierre Cardin, Brooks Brothers, Scotch & Soda, Georgio Armani, Gant, Quick Silver, COS (H&M), Arket (H&M). “Lately, brands from India like Anita Dongre, Manish Malhotra, Abraham & Thakore, and others have also started sourcing from us,” Ignacio informs, adding that it has a partner in New Delhi who makes corozo buttons.

Trafino can export several 20ft containers of corozo blanks per month. “We can accommodate a greater demand. It is only a matter of organising our chain. We estimate that at least 6,000 families, that is about 25,000 to 30,000 people depend on the corozo value chain in Ecuador.”
 

The process

For the dyeing process, the blanks are immersed in a tub with water at room temperature (minimum 5 hours), and then the temperature is raised to 85 degrees Celsius. The dye is added according to the dose recommended and the buttons dunked in it. The buttons are then rinsed with fresh water and a fixer is applied. Corozo´s porous nature allows the colours to penetrate deep into the surface, making it an excellent material for dyeing. Corozo is also well known for its elegant and unique natural grain.

Beauty ingredient

A project that Trafino has been researching on for the last four years is to develop an alternative use for tagua, in powder form, to replace plastic microbeads that pollute the oceans. This product is for the cosmetic industry (an ingredient to be used in cosmetic formulation to get an exfoliating effect) and is manufactured from a by-product generated by the processing of the blanks; thus, nothing is wasted. The Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment awarded Trafino SA the ‘Green Initiative Prize’ for promoting the conservation of rainforests through sustainable management of corozo.

Currently serving 80% of the world market, Trafino SA claims to have emerged a leader in the export of corozo blanks. Around 700 artisans work with it.  At present, Trafino’s corporate capital is in the hands of each and every worker. This means that all Trafino employees are shareholders of the company.
Equal Stakeholders? Currently serving 80% of the world market, Trafino SA claims to have emerged a leader in the export of corozo blanks. Around 700 artisans work with it. At present, Trafino’s corporate capital is in the hands of each and every worker. This means that all Trafino employees are shareholders of the company. Trafino SA

Sustainable approach

Trafino claims to abide by social and environmental responsibility. “Our product is guaranteed, our shipments are always made within the time offered because we understand that button manufacturers and clothing brands have commitments and contracts to fulfill. Trafino provides the confidence that the distribution chain needs to offer the market the best product in a timely manner”, says Ignacio.

In Ecuador, he informs, there is a legal minimum wage of $425/month plus social benefits, and Trafino workers earn more than the minimum wage.

It is working with the United Nations Small Grants Program, Germany development agency GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit ), the IRD (French Institute of Research for Development), other government institutions and NGOs to strengthen and support corozo collecting communities, protect forests and take care of corozo palm trees. Trafino is also a member of the Hot Palm project

Trafino and Forever Lung have also launched a project to restore the buffer zones of tropical forests using native corozo palms and thus help the forest to recover and regain space. “The project with the GIZ is to establish a nursery with 5,000 native tagua palms so that the communities can use them to restore forest areas that have been deforested”.

Ignacio Maya
Ignacio Maya
Executive President
Trafino SA

We can accommodate a greater demand. It is only a matter of organising our chain. We estimate that at least 6,000 families, that is about 25,000 to 30,000 people depend on the corozo value chain in Ecuador.

It is estimated that at least 6,000 families, that is about 25,000 to 30,000 people depend on the corozo value chain in Ecuador.
Making a living It is estimated that at least 6,000 families, that is about 25,000 to 30,000 people depend on the corozo value chain in Ecuador. Trafino SA

The Founder, Francisco Luna, has transferred the shares of his company to the workers. At present, Trafino’s corporate capital is in the hands of each and every worker. This means that all Trafino employees are shareholders of the company. Francisco transferred the shares to the workers because his social philosophy dictates that companies should belong to those who work for them.

Elaborating on this, Francisco had said in a manifesto titled ‘The Limitation of Capital and the Democratisation of Production Assets’:

“I propose, therefore, to change the system so that, without eliminating the incentive of a fair return on capital investment, it limits the unlimited profits that are available today, making them more equitably distributed. Hence my proposal for a "democratisation of the means of production", consisting of a redistribution of the assets of companies. We are not talking about maintaining the system by improving the income of the workers, no. We are talking about allowing workers to become owners of the means of production in which they work. As you can see, I am not proposing to eliminate capitalism because we cannot eliminate human ambition, which is also a stimulus for progress; but I propose to limit its infinite and unlimited power.”

Characteristics of the corozo palm tree

The corozo is known for its specific characteristics:

  • Corozo palms have multiple biological interactions with pollinating insects; thousands arrive during flowering time, as well as with wild forest animals, mainly rodents and small mammals. 
  • Corozo palms are an abundant and often dominant species in the structure of the tropical forest. For this reason, if we protect corozo palms, we conserve the entire forest and its interactions.
  • Due to the high production of organic matter (big leaves, inflorescences and large infructescence), corozo palms have a high rate of carbon fixation.
  • Corozo palms prevent erosion and contribute to soil formation.
  • Corozo palms promote the ‘milking of clouds’, maintaining humidity in forests.
  • Corozo is an important cultural element in the identity of Ecuadorians.
With 22 years of experience working with corozo/tagua, Ignacio Alejandro Maya León is Executive President of Trafino S.A. Passionate about the noble material.
Seeding a Fashion With 22 years of experience working with corozo/tagua, Ignacio Alejandro Maya León is Executive President of Trafino S.A. Passionate about the noble material. He is Founding Member and Executive Director of the Forever Lung Foundation created to work with local communities in defense of the forests where corozo grows wild and, through sustainable management of this resource, contribute to improving the living conditions of those who collect the seed and the hundreds of artisans involved in the value chain. Trafino SA
Wild and Commercial

The tagua nut or vegetable ivory is also known as mococha, corozo, yarina, chapi, cadi or cachu. These are some common local names for the palm-trees and seeds of various species of palms of the genus Phytelephas (Phytelephas macrocarpa; Phytelephas seemannii and Phytelephas aequatorialis) that grow wild and sometimes as a commercial crop in tropical forests, mainly in the Ecuadorian coast and Amazon forests. (Source: delAmazonas.com)

Fruits and Seeds

Tagua is a solitary, uncultivated palm-tree that grows in forests called “taguales”. This palm with a woody trunk can reach up to 20 meters in height and takes between fourteen and fifteen years to bear fruit; subsequently, the plant offers three harvests per year. The fruits are large and almost round, flattened globular, brown or black in colour. Botanically, they are drupaceous berries (when ripe), with a thick and fibrous rind; they enclose a variable number of locular cavities containing the seeds (two or more in each locule). (Source: delAmazonas.com)

Richa Bansal

RICHA BANSAL has more than 30 years of media industry experience, of which the last 20 years have been with leading fashion magazines in both B2B and B2C domains. Her most recent position was at the helm of editoral affairs at Fibre2Fashion

 
 
 
 
 
  • Dated posted: 2 January 2023
  • Last modified: 4 January 2023