What is Piñatex?
Piñatex is a vegan leather (otherwise known as faux leather) meaning no animal products are used in making the material.
Most vegan leathers are simply plastic based, made out of PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) or PU (Polyurethane).
Piñatex however, is mostly made from the fibres of Pineapple leaves. Some plastic and bioplastic bonding agents are added, as well as a water-based Polyurethane (PU) resin for protection.
The material is made by a company called Ananas Anam, which was founded by inventor and now Chief Creative & Innovation Officer.
Where did this idea come from?
The Philippines is home to one of the largest pineapple growing communities. Tonnes of Pineapples are sold, but almost all the leaves are discarded or burned.
Dr Carmen Hijosa, figured out a way to turn these leftover organics into something far more useful.
After spending 15 years in the leather industry, Dr Hijosa went and gained a PhD in Textiles from the Royal College of Art, London – and at the heroic age of 62!
Earning a doctorate gave her the scientific and technical background to strive towards creating a sustainable material.
“The environment is suffering and the people who are making leather are also suffering from the non-sustainable processes they are using” says Dr Hijosa.
So how do you get leather from leaves?
The Ananas Anam website features a relatively transparent view of how Piñatex is made.
These pineapple leaves are broken down semi-automatically, and mostly dried naturally by the sun. Impurities are removed to create a “fluff-like material” which is called PALF (pineapple leaf fibre).
Next, a corn-based Polylactic Acid (PLA) is added to create ‘Piñafelt’. PLA is a bioplastic meaning it’s not derived from fossil fuels, has low toxicity and is mechanically recyclable.
The primary issue with bioplastics is ultimately degradation. PLA can take hundreds of years to biodegrade in landfill, but can be industrially composted. We discuss bioplastics in depth here.
Finally, pigments, resins and a small amount of plastic coating are added for additional strength, durability and water resistance. Polyurethane is the plastic of choice here, with around 10% of the final leather being made up of PU.
PU tends to be less toxic and more environmentally friendly than PVC. It has biodegradable properties, and has been touted as a “promising candidate in the rapidly growing market of resorbable devices”. While it’s a ‘friendlier’ plastic, it’s still a plastic and we hope Piñatex finds other solutions.
In a world full of greenwashing, transparency is key
Piñatex is straight up when it comes to their environmental impact. On their website, they clearly state that they’re not 100% biodegradable.
The company divulges the breakdown of their products, such as the proportion of pineapple leaf fibres, as well as the plastics and bioplastics. A technical specifications sheet is provided for manufacturers.
It’s always odd when companies say they’re ‘inspired’ instead of ‘certified’. Ananas Anam are inspired by the Cradle to Cradle® approach, but not certified. This trademarked certification supports ecological, intelligent and innovative design policies within today’s economic environment.
Ananas Anam is however a registered B Corp – but only just passing the threshold of 80 with a score of 80.5. Traditional ‘non-B-corp companies’ average a score of 59. The maximum score is 200, so according to B Corp there’s a long way to go.
It’s also worth mentioning that their ‘Responsibility’ page on their website contains under 700 words. It can be vague in parts. There’s a slightly odd statistic stating “10% of Philippines taken up with agriculture.”
What about the social impact?
Here’s where the transparency goes pear-shaped for Piñatex.
Unfortunately we can’t find any information on whether the pineapple farmers are earning a living wage. In fact we don’t even know where they’re located.
There’s a picture of a smiling farmer on their ‘Responsibility ’ page, and they state “We are proud to work directly with the people involved throughout our supply chain, so can tell you #WhoMadeYourFibre”. However there’s no links or further information to who made the fibre, and this makes us start to ask some questions.
Agriculture in the Philippines
What we do know is that the Philippine pineapple industry is dominated by 2 multi-national corporations – Dole Philippines (Dolefil) and Del Monte Philippines Inc. (DMPI) – who grow around 80% of its pineapples. Almost all of which are on the conflict-torn island of Mindanao.
While these corporations are run as cooperatives, it does not necessarily mean that all farmers are well looked after. Many contract workers are hired seasonally, and are not cooperative members. In fact the Fairfood report estimates that up to 75% of the families of contract workers live on incomes below the Family Living Wage.
Labor cooperatives in the Philippines have come a long way, and many are doing it right. However solid information is hard to find. Many are cooperatives in name only, and between large landowners and multinational corporations – the actual farmers themselves are left behind.
Seasonal employment, often only five or six months in the harvest season is common in the Pineapple trade. Contractual workers, who made up around three quarters of the workforce, earned roughly half that of direct workers.
While this may not be Ananas Anam’s problem, there’s a lack of transparency around their claim that they provide an additional income stream to farming communities. We reached out to them with some labor questions, and are yet to hear back.
We’d really like to know how much of this additional income is going to the Japanese multinational Itochu, the owners of Dolefil?
We like Piñatex. We like the way they’re making waves and providing a genuine alternative to traditional leather. Dr Carmen Hijosa is quite an inspiration. She’s clearly devoted to the cause – gaining a PhD in your 60s is an extraordinary accomplishment!
Piñatex ‘Performance’ is the range promoted for upholstery, fashion and automotive – and it’s creating quite a buzz. While the company is transparent about their production, we’re slightly underwhelmed that it’s composed of only 46% pineapple leaf fibres.
We hope that the company continues to invest in research and development to increase the proportion of naturally derived materials, while decreasing plastic.
There does not seem to be a recycling or composting ‘end of life’ program to trade-in Piñatex materials, or to assist in degradation. But to be fair, almost no novel producers have such programs. True sustainability involves factoring end-of-life practices.
From a social perspective, we would like to see much more transparency in the sourcing of agricultural materials in the Philippines. We’d like to see hard facts on living wages and the claims of ‘additional income’ backed up.
We’re glad to see brands and manufacturers using Piñatex as an alternative to PVC and leather. We would gladly choose the material for our next purchase. As always, make your purchases wisely, and don’t buy stuff you don’t need.