When we first walked into Buttonology in the garment district in Manhattan, we were overwhelmed by the number of button choices. There are horn, seashell, wood, metal, plastic, corozo, and faux options for most of the latter; all in a variety of shapes and sizes. Another venture fellow at the BFDA, Charlie Morris from Fanmail, had mentioned that he used Corozo buttons. When we found out they were made from a nut that is harvested once it naturally falls to the ground, we were intrigued and set out to see if this nut button could work for Kirrin Finch.
WHAT IS COROZO AND WHAT DOES IT HAVE TO DO WITH ELEPHANTS?
Corozo comes from the Tagua tree that grows in the lowland rainforests of Ecuador Peru, Columbia and Panama. Ironically we have actually been to the region in Ecuador where Tagua is harvested, but at that time, Kirrin Finch was just a fledgling idea and we certainly had not thought about what kind of buttons we might use. Oh how things have changed!
Each Tagua plant produces up to 15 fruit clusters that are called “mococha." Each mococha has approximately 30 seeds, which are called Corozo, or Tagua Nuts. What makes them a sustainable resource is that the mococho clusters only fall the floor when ripe, so they can only be taken when they are good and ready. No grabby hands here!
Corozo is also called vegetable ivory because of its similarity to real ivory. Even the scientific name for the Tagua palm, Phytelephas, is derived from the greek word for elephant! Just one tagua tree produces the amount of vegetable ivory in one year equal to one elephant tusk (about 20 pounds). And it can continue producing for more than a hundred years. So unlike an elephant, that is often killed for it's tusks, this tree provides a renewable source of material. So tell those elephant poachers to stay away from Babar and Dumbo, and get some Corozo nuts instead.
WHAT IS THE PROCESS TO MAKE IT INTO A BUTTON?
After the mococho clusters fall to the forest floor, the nuts are gathered and dried in the sun for about one to two months. When the nut is first taken from the palm, the inside is a gooey jelly-like substance, but after drying, the nut becomes hard. Once dried, it is sliced and processed into Corozo blanks or fully finished buttons.
It is also made into ornamental figurines, chess pieces, dice, umbrella handles, billiard balls and jewelry. So next time you go over to Grandma's house, check out her display cabinet for Corozo figurines!
WHY IS IT A SUSTAINABLE OPTION?
- Natural Harvesting: Corozo seeds can be collected only after they fall naturally from the tree. Seeds that are picked from the palm before they fall are not ripe enough for button production. So there’s absolutely no need for deforestation.
- Renewable Resource: It does not require the cutting-down of trees, because the buttons are made from the trees nut. Once mature, the Tagua nut trees can produce 30-50lbs of nuts annually for 100 years.
- Durable Material: Corozo is made up of very tightly wound organic fibers which give it excellent durability and scratch resistance.
- Natural Material: Unlike plastic buttons, Corozo buttons will eventually biodegrade, thus helping to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the ocean and landfills.
- Local Community Job Creation: Though it represents less than 0.5% of total exports out of Ecuador, according to CORPEI, the Commercial branch of the Foreign Relations Ministry, the Tagua industry supports 30,000 families in Ecuador.
- Incentives to Protect The Rainforest: According to a Massachusetts-based environmental group called Cultural Survival, natural rain forest products such as vegetable ivory can generate up to five times the income of banana plantations and cattle ranches (industries that often lead to rainforest deforestation).
Okay so now I think you can understand why we are nuts about Corozo from a sustainability perspective!!! But wait there is more - it also has some cool design features. Corozo is naturally porous, so it takes on dyes easily. It also has a beautiful natural grain that gets accentuated when dyed, giving the button an elegant look. As such we have created a variety of colored cuff buttons that give each shirt a unique feel. We are also using white Corozo buttons on our organic cotton oxford buttons downs.
Colored Corozo cuff button showing the natural grain in the Corozo button
SO WHY AREN'T MORE BRANDS USING COROZO?
In the 1920's, Corozo buttons accounted for 20% of the buttons used in the USA. However, with the introduction of cheaper plastic buttons, the Tagua trade dwindled and the main distributors in Germany and Italy struggled to stay open. However, in 1990, Conservation International launched the Tagua Initiative to link local Ecuadorian Tagua harvesters with international apparel brands, including Patagonia, to drive demand for Corozo buttons. The initiative resulted in the creation of eight community enterprises that sold more than 6.4 million pounds of Tagua nuts. Moreover, with the rise of conscious consumers, the demand for Corozo has increased in recent years with people looking for more eco-friendly products.
However, Corozo still accounts for a small proportion of buttons used worldwide. One of the main barriers to use is cost. Corozo has historically been more expensive than plastic, but more recently Corozo has become more affordable. Another reason is that unlike plastic or shell, Corozo can yellow over time, and so brands looking for a clean crisp white button may not consider Corozo for this reason. Lastly it seems from our experience and speaking to a few other fashion designers, Corozo is just not as readily available and/or promoted by the button companies. So therefore a designer must know about Corozo and order it specifically, vs choosing it from a display of buttons. And as research shows, humans tend to go for the path of least resistance, i.e. cheap, readily available, I know what to expect = plastic!
Regardless, we think Corozo is an excellent choice to use in our collection of button-up shirts. Currently we are using Corozo buttons for 100% of our cuff buttons and 30% of our regular shirt buttons. We plan to continue to try out new Corozo button colors and styles, so we can completely eliminate the use of plastic buttons and eventually have 100% natural buttons. Next time you put on your clothes, look at the buttons and see if you can figure out what they are made of. You might be surprised:)