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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. 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.
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.
It can be panelling. Eventually it can be made into the interiors of cars, even linings. Hijosa has spent the last five years developing Piñatex in the Royal College of Art and sample shoes have been made by Camper and Puma.
Designer Ally Capellino has also made bags from it. While Hijosa wanted to create a product that could act as an alternative to leather, she also wanted it to be environmentally friendly.
As it is a byproduct of the pineapple, Piñatex is not using additional land to be produced, she said. We are not replacing, we are an alternative. So far, industry players have been eager to experiment with the new textile as they search for fresh ideas, although Hijosa concedes it will take some time to develop in the market.
She believes consumers will be interested in buying a sustainable product which helps farming communities on the other side of the world. It is difficult, it has to perform, and will take time because now they are making the first prototypes, you may or may not buy it. But she believes the market is quite open to new products that are well-priced: First of all it was a substitute for something — wood — and it looked ugly to our eyes. But eventually it became a product by itself with its own look and feel and I think Piñatex will do the same thing.
When she first started looking for an alternative to leather, Hijosa wanted the new product to look like the one it was replacing. Now, however, she says: Leather made of pineapple?! Carmen Hijosa is the brain behind the new textile Pinatex, which by the first glance and touch might as well have been leather. But the fact is that this new sustainable product is made from the fibres from pineapple leaves.
Working as a designer Carmen Hijosa had her place in the leather industry for many years. As a part of her job she went to the Philippines to overlook some of the manufacturing of the leather. Here she came to the realization, that leather was not a sustainable product.
I know leather - but we need an alternative", Carmen recalls.
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