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RCA Research Breaks Ground in Sustainable Textiles with World's First Viable Leather Alternative

Royal College of Art PhD candidate and social entrepreneur Carmen Hijosa is bringing the world’s first viable leather alternative to market – the culmination of five year’s research and business development under the auspices of the RCA’s Textiles programme and business incubator, InnovationRCA.

Hijosa’s for-profit, positive social impact textile company, Ananas Anam, backed by the RCA, last week launched Piñatex, a non-woven material made from the fibres found in pineapple leaves. A dedicated exhibition, The Pine-Apple Show, co-curated with her PhD supervisor, Dr Yanki Lee, marked the launch. The week-long show featured work using Piñatex by a range of collaborators including Ally Capellino, Patricia Moore, John Jenkins, Smith & Matthias, and brands Puma and Camper to demonstrate the potential of the Cradle-to-Cradle inspired material across everyday fashion, furniture, interiors and automotive objects.

Based on the agricultural by-product of pineapples, produced in abundance across the Philippines, Piñatex represents a major advance in sustainable textiles. To date, the sustainable textiles market has focused on less environmentally damaging production such as organic cotton, or less agriculturally demanding fibres such as hemp or flax. Leather alternatives have centred on plastics and technical textiles. Last month, Gucci parent The Kering Group, announced the introduction of a heavy metal-free tanning process, while The Sustainable Brands’ Leather Working Group’s environmental audit evaluates water use, energy consumption, air emissions, effluent treatment and waste management across leather processing.

Rather than simply focusing on developing less environmentally damaging leather production, Piñatex sidesteps much of the resource use and pollution associated with conventional textiles and leather – from feed and pastureland to water, fossil fuels and toxic chemicals. Piñatex can be composted under specific conditions in around eight weeks. Furthermore, it offers far greater social and local economic potential than conventional leather and textile materials.

The decortication process, or extracting fibres from the leaves, can be done simply and mechanically on the pineapple plantation by pineapple farmers. The resulting decortication bio-mass by-product can be further converted into organic fertiliser or bio-gas, bringing additional income streams to local pineapple farming communities. One acre of a pineapple plantation can sustain the produce of 20,000 fruits every 15 months, making it one of the most productive tropical fruits in the world. An acre can yield 20 tonnes of pineapples per 15 months. The resulting total potential fibre production is 72,000 tons of pineapple fibre per cycle. 

‘There really are extraordinary fibres in the Philippines. The first fibres I came across more than 15 years ago were from the buntal palm, the sort that is used in cylindrical hats. But the pineapple is the finest of them all. It’s the Rolls-Royce of natural fibres. What we use for Piñatex is a complete by-product. The fruit is plentiful – we’re just using what’s already there,’ Hijosa said.

Once de-gummed, the fibres become soft to the touch and breathable. They are then industrially processed into a non-woven mesh textile at a local factory in the Philippines to produce the basis of Piñatex™, before being shipped to a finishing factory near Barcelona in Spain. Along each stage, washing, dying and resins take place in a bath, helping to save water and other resources, while enzymes that remove the gum help minimise effluent.

According to Hijosa, developing ‘roll-to-roll capabilities’ has enabled Ananas Anam to reach large-scale production – a feature that will help it achieve global commercial viability. The irregular shape of leather hides can result in up to 25 per cent waste. Wastage for Piñatex, available on 218cm or 150cm wide rolls, is just five per cent. The company has reached sufficient scale to meet orders of up to 500m of fabric in a variety of colours, finishes and thicknesses.

At around £18 per metre, Piñatex is a more economical choice than leather, which can range from £20–30 per metre. The material has met ISO international standards for tear resistance, tensile strength, seam rupture, colour fastness and abrasion resistance, another development which has helped fuel interest among brands to explore it in their own product development. 

‘If it’s not a business, then it’s not going to go anywhere,’ said Hijosa. ‘That’s why we focused on getting the product to perform to market standards, and to embed it in a large-scale production context. There needs to be a certain tonnage to fulfil the value chain.’

Hijosa, who has previously worked in the luxury leather market as co-founder and designer of Irish-based Chesneau Leather Goods, exporting globally to outlets including Harrods and Liberty in London, and Takashimaya in Japan, saw how increasingly difficult it was to obtain and maintain the quality of leather for the export market.

It was while working as a design consultant for the World Bank and the EU in South America, the Philippines, Thailand, EU that she realised that the growing social, economic and environmental gap between leather quality and leather production could be filled by developing the abundant natural fibres and harnessing the skills from developing countries. Throughout her journey to develop Piñatex, Hijosa has worked closely with The Philippine Textile Research Institute, the Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority and other research institutions such as Bangor University in Northern Ireland.

‘An important part of the research has been to link the people and the knowledge – the farmers, the harvest, the scientists. I worked with a range of organisations. I couldn’t have done this without The Philippine Textile Research Institute or the Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority,’ Hijosa said.

‘Embedding my research in the academic context at the Royal College of Art has been crucial. It has given me broader context across areas like social responsibility, upcycling and cradle-to-cradle thinking. It’s a completely new industry, so there is no reference point,’ she added.

Over the coming months, Ananas Anam plans to continue to finesse the environmental credentials of Piñatex, and will look to build on such learning to forge similar co-operative relationships across the globe through holistic social design development. Bringing a new dimension to the pineapple’s historical royal and diplomatic roots, Piñatex shows how design as a social tool to enable innovation and ingenuity can be found in what is disregarded.