When leather expert Carmen Hijosa visited the Philippines to consult with the leather industry there, she discovered two big problems: The leather was poor quality, and producing it was bad both for the local environment and the people involved.
But as she traveled around the country, she had an epiphany. The Philippines grows a lot of pineapples—and ends up with a lot of wasted pineapple leaves. The leaves, she realized, had certain features that might make it possible to turn them into a plant-based leather alternative.
"It's very fine," Hijosa says. "It has very good strength and flexibility, which is really what we need to make a non-woven substrate." She also looked at other local plants, such as banana fibers and sisal. But only pineapple fibers were strong and flexible enough to handle the manufacturing process she had in mind.
Hijosa left her work in the traditional leather industry and spent the next seven years at the Royal College of Art in London, developing the material into a patented product while she earned a PhD. Now running a startup—at age 63—she's ramping up manufacturing of her pineapple-based leather, called Piñatex.
While the "leather" doesn't harm animals, it also has clear advantages for the environment—compared both to real leather and to other synthetic leathers. "It's created from a byproduct of agriculture, meaning it's a total waste product," she says. "This really means that in order to have Piñatex, a textile, we don't have to use any land, water, pesticides, fertilizers ... we are actually taking a waste material and 'upscaling' it, meaning that we're giving it added value."
Making animal-based leather typically involves hazardous chemicals such as formaldehyde and heavy metals such as chrome, all of which can cause problems when they end up in wastewater. Like meat, since leather comes from animals that require massive amounts of feed, it also has a large carbon footprint. Fake leather is usually made from petroleum, and has processing problems of its own.
Because pineapple leaves would normally be wasted, turning them into leather is an extra source of income for farmers. After farmers take the first step in processing the leaves, separating the long fibers, they also end up with biomass that can be used as fertilizer back in the pineapple fields.
Hijosa worked with local factories to set up production. "We're developing the supply chain, which is why this is such a complex and also interesting process," she says. At factories, the material is made into rolls that can be used for shoes, handbags, car or airplane seats, or anything else that would typically be made from real leather.
Plastic-based fake leathers are still popular, because petroleum is so cheap. But Hijosa believes that is starting to change as consumers become more interested in where things come from.
"Within a fast-evolving fashion industry which is more and more driven by the success of fast fashion brands, production keeps accelerating and puts priority on quantity rather than quality," she says. "However, trend analysis tends to show a change in customers’ mindset ... people pay more and more attention to who, how, where and when the clothes we wear are made."
Her startup, Ananas Anam, has built its production from 500 meters to 2,000 meters, and in three months, she expects the next batch to be around 8,000 meters. But as the company's capacity grows, demand is already outpacing supply. Companies like Puma and Camper have made prototypes with the material, and others are already using it.
"It seems that it is the right product at the right time, because we are getting constant demand from all levels of the market—from multinationals to specialist stores, early adopters, and vegan companies looking for alternatives to leather," she says. "We're starting to get out there in the market."
Slideshow Credits: 03 / Designed and made by Smith Matthias and Carmen Hijosa.; 04 / Designed and made Ally Capellino.; 05 / Designed and made by Ina Koelln.;