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From waste to fiber – A pineapple alternative to leather

The past few months has been a spirited race towards finding the ‘perfect’ sustainable material/alternative, with many turning towards plant-based materials, clearing the path for a new era of intelligent design and eco-conscious materials. Rightly so, given the circumstances, we have our plates full with; climate change landfills that are stuffed to the brink, the plastic dilemma and poor management of resources. The industry needed a little shove in the right direction and now there is a whole new world of sustainable fashion just waiting to be explored and imbibed. What's great is that now consumers are more involved than ever before, asking the right questions and demanding fair practices and responsibility from brands. We have the chance to weave together a whole new style of thinking and doing - entering a new creative phase where thought, intention and resourcefulness will seamlessly converge.

What do pineapples have to do with this new era in fashion ?

Pineapple fibre or to be more precise “Piñatex” has been the talk of the town from Nike to H&M. We at studio beej have actually been playing around with this material for a while now, in fact we were amongst the first brands based in India to implement this spikey fruit in our plant-based diet.

“I stumbled upon Piñatex, sometime in late 2019 while researching sustainable leather alternatives for my business. What immediately attracted me to the material apart from it’s ‘leather-like’ appearance was the low environmental impact across the manufacturing process and the fact that it was made from agricultural waste.” says Arundhati

A pineapple on its parent plant (livescience)

Leather, although seemingly luxurious and wonderfully musky, has some of the worst ‘side effects’ if we can call it that. According to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, leather from cows is nearly three times as harmful to the environment as polyurethane-based vegan leather. The tanning of leather has been noted as the fifth largest pollution threat in the world, directly affecting 1.8 million people, especially in developing nations like Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. Most of the alternatives that were developed to replace leather were often just as bad as using leather itself. The most commonly used ‘faux’ leather alternative is plastic based (Polyurethane), although they are technically vegan, it has a whole other dimension of ‘bad’ to it - being just as harmful as synthetic materials that don't decompose and end up releasing toxins and micro-plastics into the environment.

“What I believe the industry needs more of, are materials that are not just vegan but also sustainable- That’s where Piñatex comes in”

What exactly is Piñatex?

Piñatex is a new age non-woven natural textile fabric made from pineapple leaf waste. Developed by Dr. Carmen Hijosa, Piñatex is the result of her search to find a sustainable alternative to leather after spending many years as a leather goods expert and witnessing first hand the environmental impact of leather production and chemical tanning. While researching in the Philippines, the third largest producer of pineapples globally Dr.Hijosa came across the unique qualities of pineapple and its fiber. She found that the pineapple leaf fibre, although very thin, has great tensile strength and high flexibility. That’s what led to the idea of creating a mesh like non woven fabric which today forms the base of Piñatex.

Man’s shirt made of piña cloth - Late 19th-20th century
(The sustainable fashion collective)

The history of pineapple as a textile

Let’s segway a little into the story behind this fruit going from your plate to your closet. Pineapples have quite an interesting history by themselves - originally from South America, most probably from the region between South Brazil and Paraguay. They began to quickly spread around the continent going up to Mexico and west indies where Christopher Columbus stumbled upon this exotic delicacy in Guadalupe (1493). Amazed by the fruit, Columbus promptly took it back to Spain and thus began its popularity in Europe and eventually other parts of the world. The fruit was romanticized and at a certain point ‘royal-ised’ since it was a rare find in Europe it was seen as a symbol of the elites.

Pineapples were introduced by the Spanish to the Philippines during the Spanish colonial era. This intervention led to the making of Piña - a traditional Philippine fiber made from pineapple leaves. Since the 17th century, pineapples were cultivated for weaving lustrous lace-like luxury textiles known as nipis fabric. The name is derived from Spanish piña, meaning "pineapple". This pineapple silk became a favourite amongst both European as well as Philippine elites and soon began to spread worldwide - then came cotton and we know how popular cotton material is to this day. As cotton grew, Piña textile production began to slowly disappear. Only in the last 20 years did this use of Piña textile blossom as the world began its search for sustainable alternatives.

The process behind Piñatex - from ‘waste’ to fiber

The process involves the leaves of pineapples, which are a by-product of agricultural harvest and require no additional environmental resources to produce. About 16 pineapples or 480 leaves are used in making 1 square meter of the textile.

  1. After the pineapple harvest, the suitable plant leaves which are left behind are collected in bundles and the long fibers are extracted using semi-automatic machines.
  2. The fibers are washed, then dried naturally by the sun, or during the rainy season in drying ovens. The dried fibers go through a purification process to remove any impurities which results in a fluff-like material.
  3. This fluff-like pineapple leaf fibre (PALF) gets mixed with a corn based polylactic acid (PLA) and undergoes a mechanical process to create Piñafelt, a non-woven mesh which forms the base of all Piñatex collections.
  4. The rolls of Piñafelt are then shipped by boat from the Philippines to Spain or Italy for specialized finishing.

Separation of leaves after a pineapple harvest (Ananas Anam)

Why Piñatex?

Other than the fact that this material is an innovative step towards debunking the idea of ‘waste’. Piñatex, by nature, is highly durable and versatile - it can be used in a range of things from accessories to upholstery making it a truly formidable material. Ananas Anam, the company that produces Piñatex, is a certified B Corporation. Which means that it is a business that meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. In addition to creating material from waste, Ananas Anam works with several farmer cooperatives across the Philippines, thus providing a second stream of stable income to the farmers. They are also one of the few companies in the world to be able to contribute to 9 out of the 17 United Nations ‘Sustainable Development Goals.’ From ethical production to social responsibility this material checks almost all the boxes when it comes to sustainability which is why it has grown in popularity, and is slowly finding its way into our lives. To learn more about Pinatex head to https://www.ananas-anam.com/

“Biomaterials are definitely the future of the industry and Piñatex is right up there in the currently available and commercially viable options. I am personally a huge fan of the material and want to incorporate more and more of it in our collections.” says Arundhati.

At Beej we have our noses deeply wedged (virtually and physically) between books and research, hungry for new game-changing alternatives and eager to add to the narrative of what fashion could be like when we are in sync with people and nature. Piñatex is strong, versatile, breathable, soft, light, flexible, and can be easily printed on, stitched and cut making is the perfect canvas for our handcrafted designs. Curious about Piñatex accessories? Surf through our range to see how we meld this innovative material with age-old craftsmanship, creating luxury with a conscience.

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