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Textination Newsline

  • Spanish entrepreneur Carmen Hijosa for the European Inventor Award 2021nominated by the European Patent Office (EPO)
  • Development of a process that transforms pineapple leaves into a soft, durable and versatile textile
  • Environmentally friendly alternative supports agriculture and is in demand by leading international fashion companies

As announced by the European Patent Office (EPO), Spanish entrepreneur Carmen Hijosa has been nominated for the European Inventor Award 2021 as a finalist in the category “SME” (Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises). She has developed a leather alternative and equally innovative textile made from the fibers of pineapple leaves, which is made from a waste resource and has a lower impact on the environment compared to the production of cowhide. Their natural leather alternative supports farmers and cooperatives in the Philippines and is also in demand with major international fashion brands.

The winners of the EPO's annual innovation award will be announced on June 17, 2021 from 7 p.m. at a gala event, which this year was redesigned as a digital event for a global audience.

From pineapple leaf waste to natural textiles
Conventional leather production is controversial: the rearing of cattle consumes considerable resources, the chemical-intensive tanning process carries the risk of environmental pollution and the working conditions in the tanneries are often not good. Synthetic leather alternatives such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride) are also associated with serious effects on the environment and health risks for people, according to the European Patent Office.

Hijosa experienced the reality of global leather production firsthand when she worked as a textile design consultant for the World Bank in the Philippines in 1993. The negative environmental and social effects of local leather production led them to develop a sustainable textile that is suitable for export and makes better use of the raw materials in the Philippines as well as the traditional skills of the people there. "Pineapple leaf fibers are very strong, fine and flexible and have been used in traditional hand-woven textiles in the Philippines for 300 years," explains Hijosa. "So I wondered what if I made a fabric from these pineapple leaf fibers that was similar to leather - a fabric made of fibers? '"

As part of a twelve-year research and development process, she worked to recreate the mesh of collagen fibers in leather. During this time she completed several textile degrees, founded a company in London in 2013 and refinanced her house to continue her research and complete her PhD. At the end of this process there was the successful development and perfecting of a textile called Piñatex. The material is produced by pulling the cellulose fibers off the leaves and first producing fibers of textile quality. These are then processed into a non-woven mesh textile, which is further refined and softened into a leather alternative.

The raw material that forms the basis of Hijosa's textile is a by-product of the pineapple harvest in the Philippines. Using a resource that would otherwise be thrown away provides farmers with additional income. This waste resource has significant potential as the world's ten largest pineapple producing countries produce enough leaves to potentially replace more than 50 percent of global leather production with Hijosa's material. Piñatex also requires much less water than textiles such as cotton, which uses more than 20,000 liters of water per kilogram. In addition, fewer chemicals and less CO2 are used in production than in leather production.

Innovation gives consumers more sustainable options
In 2011, Hijosa applied for a patent for the material and its manufacture before setting up Ananas Anam as a start-up in 2013 to commercialize Piñatex. This part of the process was crucial for her: "Intellectual property played a central role in securing the financing and future of the product and its market potential." of waste-based textiles. Their pioneering work has positioned the company as the market leader at a time when there is an increasing need for more sustainable products on the part of consumers.

From 2013 to 2019, Hijosa's company's revenue roughly doubled each year, growing 40 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year. The company employs around ten people in its London office and works with factories in the Philippines and Spain, as well as with the largest Philippine pineapple cultivation collective, which includes 700 families who benefit from additional income by supplying waste leaves. Piñatex is currently used by nearly 3,000 brands in 80 countries. It can be found in various products - from sneakers to jackets, car interiors and handbags to part of a purely vegan hotel suite in the world.

Other vegetable alternatives to leather that already exist or are in development are based on a wide variety of raw materials from apple seeds to mushrooms and underline the trend towards textiles made from plants and waste. The combined global leather market (animal and synthetic) was estimated at 374 billion euros in 2017. Although real leather is becoming increasingly scarce and therefore more expensive, the forecast for the overall market through 2025 shows annual growth of 5.40 percent. Recent volcanic eruptions near their factories in the Philippines and pandemic restrictions have temporarily slowed Hijosa's production. Still, the entrepreneur says the outlook for the company remains positive as more and more consumers want to consume more sustainably.

Dr. Carmen Hijosa
... was born on March 17th, 1952 in Salas in the Spanish region of Asturias. At the age of 19 she moved to Ireland, where she co-founded the luxury leather manufacturer Chesneau Leather Goods in 1977. As a design director, high-end customers like Harrods were among her clients. After managing the company for 15 years, she began working as a textile consultant for the World Bank and at research institutes in Germany and Ireland on EU-funded projects in the 1990s, bringing her textile design expertise to developing markets. In 1993 she was hired by the World Bank as a consultant for the Philippine leather industry. The negative impact this industry has on the environment and society prompted them to develop a sustainable alternative - a leather substitute made from pineapple leaves. From 2009 to 2014 Hijosa did her PhD in textiles at the Royal College of Art in London and further developed her textile prototype. In 2013 she founded the company Ananas Anam Ltd. to commercialize the leather alternative. Carmen Hijosa holds a European patent (EP2576881) that was granted in 2018.

About the European Inventor Award
The European Inventor Award is one of the most prestigious innovation awards in Europe. It was established by the EPO in 2006 and honors individual inventors and teams of inventors whose pioneering innovations provide answers to some of the greatest challenges of our time. The finalists and winners are selected by an independent jury consisting of international experts from business, politics, science, academia and research. It examines the proposals with regard to their contribution to technical progress, social development, economic prosperity and job creation in Europe. The prize is awarded in five categories (industry, research, SMEs, non-EPO countries and life's work). The winner of the audience award will be determined by the public from among the 15 finalists via online voting.