Finding a substitute for leather has long vexed those concerned about the material’s effects on the environment. On the one hand, the process of tanning leather involves chemicals like chromium that can be extremely toxic when they’re not properly disposed of (and they’re often not). On the other hand, it’s difficult to know if petroleum alternatives like pleather are actually any better for the Earth.
Spanish-born artist and veteran of the Philippine leather industry Carmen Hijosa has created an alternative to both leather and pleather–and it’s a material with a much smaller footprint. Inspired by weavers in the Philippines who sometimes work with pineapple leaf fibers, Hijosa invented a material called Piñatex. The fibers that comprise Piñatex are extracted from pineapple leaves on plantations by farmers. They’re then put through an industrial process that creates a biomass as a byproduct that can be converted into fertilizer (many farmers end up selling it for additional income). Hijosa uses the material to make shoes, bags and other accessories.
In its natural form, the waste from the industrial process is similar to canvas. Through a patent pending process that Hijosa developed herself, the unwoven material is treated to look and feel like leather.
The cost of Piñatex is currently about $20 per square meter (a piece of furniture would require about five square meters) while leather can range anywhere between $25 and $35, Hijosa told the Guardian in 2014. Besides being cheaper, Piñatex is theoretically more sustainable, since it’s made from a material that would normally be discarded after the industrial process.
After discovering that she could create this new material out of discarded biomass, Hijosa applied for her PhD at London’s Royal College of the Arts. There, she has completed the R&D on the material and created a full supply chain to produce it. She has collaborated with several brands like Camper and Puma on shoe prototypes, as well as the British boutique company Ally Capellino to create a leather clutch. Last month, Hijosa won the 2016 Arts Foundation award for Material Innovation for her Piñatex material. Hijosa says the products should be on the market by early spring 2016, and will be sold through the partnership brands.