A sustainable and plant-based alternative to leather, the Piñatex brand has been stirring things up in the fashion and interiors industries for five years now, thanks to a revolutionary concept — fabrics made out of waste pineapple leaves fibers.
Think of that leather jacket you look so cool in. Now think about all the impacts the leather industry has on the planet. Its manufacturing processes include a heavy use of natural resources including land, water, food and fuel, its tanning processes often require toxic chemicals that are later leached into our soil and water streams, and that leather jacket will take decades to degrade once it’s no longer wearable — or goes out of fashion. Not to mention animal cruelty issues. Now ask yourself — what if there could be an alternative out there? That’s the question Dr. Carmen Hijosa, founder and Chief Creative and Innovation Officer of the London-based social enterprise Ananas Anam, asked herself relentlessly for years, until she developed an innovative and sustainable textile capable of replacing leather for both apparel and furniture applications made from pineapple leaf fibers, called Piñatex.
A Spanish designer and entrepreneur, Dr. Hijosa had worked in the leather industry for 15 years. She had her own luxury leather goods manufacturing company in Ireland, where she lives, when she became a private consultant for international entities such as the EU and the World Bank. Traveling the world during the late 90’s, she quickly realized that the industry’s quality standards were different outside Europe, and that leather came at greater cost than expected — a social and environmental one. "At the time, sustainability was not yet a global issue, but it became one for me," she says. She was determined to find an alternative.
But it wasn’t until she went to the Philippines to work alongside the local farming and weaving communities that she had her Eureka moment. The Filipino had been using pineapple leaf fibers to create textiles for centuries, using traditional low-tech and hand weaving techniques. For this traditional textiles they use the fibres from the leaves of a specially grown pineapple – Red Spanish Onion, which gives small pineapples and long leaves. However, to create Piñatex, only the waste of the commercial pineapple agriculture is used; These leaves are often left to rot in the ground, and can even become a nuisance, generating tonnes of waste and releasing CO2 into the atmosphere while decomposing. And since they contain cellulosic fibers, they can’t be directly used as a fertilizer. So what if a leather-like material could be manufactured from the industrial waste of the pineapple harvest?
With that question in mind Dr. Hijosa left her company and jumped into a PhD at the Royal College of Art and Design of London, to research and develop the material she knew she could create. It would take her five years to develop Piñatex, which was finally launched in mid 2015 as the star product of Ananas Anam. "From that initial ‘What if?’, a new industry was born," she says. Now, her company caters its plant-based leather-alternative for big fashion brands such as Hugo Boss and H&M, but also smaller and eco-conscious ones such as Bourgeois Bohème in London. Shoes, bags, watches straps, apparel goods, but also car seats and interior design furnitures can be created using Piñatex. And the best part is that not only the materials are sustainable — the manufacturing process is too, as well as socially responsible.
Ananas Anam works with its own independent subsidiary company and several rural farming cooperatives in the Philippines to locally source the pineapple leaves. Located in Mindanao, one of the poorest regions in the country, the largest cooperative, called T’Boli, employs more than 113 pineapple farmers, men and women alike, who now have an additional income aside from seasonal harvests. "Some of these workers have not been able to find regular, sustainable jobs, so they’re not just in it for the income, but for a sense of belonging to a community. They can now stay in their homes, provide for their families, without having to leave for the big cities. And that’s one of our biggest drivers," says Dr. Hijosa.
The farmers collect and decorticate the leaves through a mechanical process, using a specially designed machine —called a decorticating machine— that avoids the need for chemicals. The machine separates the hard fibers and the soft greens, or biomass, and the fibers are then washed in water and dried in the sand. The biomass residue, which has a lot of chemical nutrients, is mixed with other organic waste and used as fertilizer. Once ready, the fibers are packed and sent to Ananas Anam pilot plant near Manila for purification, in order to soften the fibers and turn them into clean cellulose, using natural chemicals such as enzymes. The cellulosic fibers can then be cleaned through another mechanical process —carding— before going through another process to create a non-woven mesh. The fabrics are then sent to Spain, near Barcelona, to be turned into the final product, via textiles finishing processes involving resins and pigments, both ecologically certified.
Environmentally speaking, the process makes sense. The company, which recently became a B-Corp, gives an added value to 80 to 100 tonnes of waste pineapple leaves each month, sequestering CO2 and trapping it in the fibers in the process. “At least until the product’s life ends. That’s why our aim is to upcycle it, which is theoretically already possible if we shred it and use the fibers again,” says Dr. Hijosa. All things considered, from leaf to online shelf, the carbon footprint of one square meter of Piñatex is already better than traditional leather — 2.69 kilogrammes of CO2, compared to leather’s 30 kilos of CO2 per square meter, according to the Higgs Index. "And we still can improve energy use to reduce even more our footprint," she says.
Available worldwide and through an online platform, Piñatex fabrics can be bought either by linear meter —1 metre long and 1,55 meter high— or in bulk, in a bid to cater everyone who wishes to use it, including design students, small brands and big fashion labels. "The linear meter can cost up to 58 euros, but it is still more affordable than the average leather price", Dr. Hijosa says. The company has now more than 1,000 clients all over the world, including one of the biggest sportswear brands in the world — which’s name Dr. Hijosa prefers to keep a secret for now. "And even if some applications might still be a challenge for Piñatex, which isn’t yet quite as water resistant as leather over time, there is a growing market for the automotive and the interiors industry", says Ananas Anam’s founder. A specifically automotive-adapted type of Piñatex is under development, she adds, as well as a new kind of plant-based yarn. "We never stop researching and developing new ideas and improvements," says Dr. Hijosa, proving that sometimes, "What if?" is the best question one could possibly ask.
This article has been written as part as a series of stories produced for open_resource by Sparknews, a French social enterprise that aims to foster new narratives that can help accelerate a social and environmental transition to tackle our world’s most pressing issues.