Pineapple leaf leather is one of the alternatives

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Drying pineapple leaf fibers that are used to make pineapple anams pinatex.

Pineapple Anna

Fashion has a detrimental impact on the environment, but there are a number of innovations that are increasingly being used by large industrial companies trying to change that.

According to the European Parliament and the United Nations, the production of clothing and shoes is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Polyester is the most widely used clothing fabric in the world, yet it and other synthetic materials are made from fossil fuels.

In fact, a recent analysis by the UK’s Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce found that nearly half of the items recently listed on the biggest “fast fashion” sites were made from new plastics like polyester, acrylic and nylon.

However, there are more and more alternative solutions that are being adopted by well-known brands.

Here are some examples:

Pineapple leaf leather

Carmen Hijosa is the founder of Ananas Anam, a company that makes Pinatex, a natural leather alternative made from pineapple leaf fibers.

While working as a textile consultant for the World Bank in the 1990s, advising the Philippines’ leather export industry, she began looking for more sustainable alternative natural materials.

This was when Hijosa “discovered” pineapple leaves, the fibers of which are “very fine but very strong,” she explained.

So she looked for a mesh as a base for a leather alternative, and “after 20 years of research and development, Pinatex was born,” Hijosa told CNBC on a video call.

Pinatex is 95% plant-based and, according to Hijosa, the production process is “completely transparently sustainable”.

In cooperation with pineapple cultivation cooperatives in the Philippines, the leaves that would normally rot in the ground are first collected. The fibers are extracted mechanically, then washed and dried in the sun before being cleaned in a facility with enzymes.

The fibers are made into a net before they are sent in rolls to Spain, where the material is refined with vegetable resin, coated and slightly mechanically broken to make it softer.

Pinatex is exported from Spain to more than 80 countries and is used in the manufacture of clothing, shoes, bags and home furnishings.

Last month, Nike launched a sneaker collection made with Pinatex. It was also used by brands like H&M and Hugo Boss.

In 2019, Pinatex was used by Hilton to design the interior for the world’s first vegan hotel suite in London.

Hijosa was also recently named a finalist for the European Inventor Award 2021 for her work.

Pineapple Anam will expand to Bangladesh and Costa Rica. Hijosa said that while it is “not about being big and extracting natural resources”, some growth is important to bring the price down and make Pinatex more accessible.

At 35 to 58 euros per running meter, Hijosa pointed out that it is usually cheaper than leather. In addition, up to 30% of the leather hides are wasted, while with a manufactured product such as Pinatex there is hardly any waste because the entire roll of material is the same.

‘Tipping point’

Jeff Martin’s journey to developing a range of tree-based natural rubber products launched in 2017 under his Yulex brand was also years in the making.

“Previously, Yulex was the first company in North America to produce natural rubber latex commercially,” says the company’s website using the shrub guayule.

On a video call with CNBC, the CEO of Yulex said that sustainable fashion has reached a “tipping point” as more brands try to move from using oil- or petroleum-based materials to using bio-based or renewable materials.

Martin stated that the manufacture of natural rubber had become a “lost art” due to the “explosion” of plastics since World War II.

“The art of making things from natural materials has always been there, but we have people who weren’t used to working with these materials,” he said.

Martin pointed out that nearly 30 million tons of rubber are produced and consumed on the planet each year, “most of which ends up in landfills”. Rubber is also difficult to biodegrade, he said, and the biodegradable parts can release toxic chemicals into the environment.

“We just have to stop taking oil out of the earth and make things out of oil when we can make it with natural materials,” he said.

Outdoor apparel brand Patagonia was the first major brand to partner with Yulex and use their tree rubber on wetsuits. Yulex has since made its way into the fashion industry, with Stella McCartney using it on a range of Hunter boots in 2019.

Carbon capture clothing

Post Carbon Lab, a “transdisciplinary design research studio”, takes a different approach to sustainable fashion and is still in its infancy, as it did not register as a company until 2020.

The microbial treatment of coloring matter has probably had the greatest impact, co-founder Dian-Jen Lin told CNBC on a video call.

The process uses microbes that naturally create pigmentation, she explained. Post Carbon Lab also uses a synthetic coating with photosynthetic microorganisms that not only creates a green tint but also gives clothing “photosynthetic capacity” or carbon sequestration.

Post Carbon Lab doesn’t work on the scale of other sustainable fashion solutions, but it was used in the collection by Canadian knit designer Olivia Rubens last year.

Lin also said that scalability is not the goal of Post Carbon Lab. Instead, she hoped that his concepts would encourage behavioral changes among people in the supply chain who see themselves as “keepers” or “carers” of clothing.