Jan 17, 2023
by Kyle MacNeill
Pulp Fiction >> Is All Fruit Leather Made Equal?
by Kyle MacNeill
Jan 17, 2023

Pleather – portmanteau fans, that’s, plastic ‘leather’ – makes us uncomfortable, despite its animal-free makeup. There’s the touch; it doesn’t feel quite like real thing, the fabric equivalent of a Beyond burger. Equally, though, it now makes us figuratively feel a sense of unease, an uncanny, synthetic version of something natural.

It wasn’t always like this. After nitrocellulose, the main ingredient of gunpowder, exploded onto the scene in the 1840s, it started to be converted to brittle plastic collodion and then applied to fabrication. In the 1920s, Naugahyde was invented, sheared from the gormless, toothy-grinned Nauga, an animal that naturally sheds its own skin. Well, that’s how the advertising campaign had it anyway; while it led to an actual urban myth, the Nauga was nothing more than a fictional mascot, helping to sell PVC pleather by appealing to its durability, easy-cleaning and seamlessness.

It gave way to tons of copycat fabrics, promising the look of leather at a cheaper price and without the need for intensive labour. Aside from cost, too, there was an ethical slant; now, there was no need to kill a cow to look like a cowboy. By the turn of the century, it was here to stay. “Fall promises to provide a plethora of pleather, a shorthand name for plastic leather that’s sexy, supple and synthetic,” goes this 2000 article from The Los Angeles Times. Or, if you needed any real millennial validation, this scene from Sex and The City:

Party host: Is that pleather?
Carrie Bradshaw: Yes, and thanks so much for noticing!

In 2005, it featured in collections from Junya Watanabe and Jean Paul Gaultier, and the word was added in the OED a year later (alongside, for some foreshadowing, ‘pineappley’). A vibe shift, though, was just around the corner, turning it from cash cow to cached ‘cow’. This 2007 entry in Slate’s ahead-of-its-time environmental column The Green Lantern noted that PVC is seen by Greenpeace as “the most damaging plastic on the planet.” While other pleather pieces were being made with PU, a slightly better alternative, it’s still synthesised using fossil fuels.

Suddenly, there was a moral conundrum over whether pleather was actually even better than leather. Sure, it saves killing cows, but is it worth it when you’re buying something made of petrol? While pleather was the only option for true vegans, it seemed like it might make more sense buying a longer-lasting, vintage leather jacket. As the sustainable fashion movement continued to grow, pleather became something seen less as eco-friendly and more as a form of fast fashion, a cheaper, tackier, dirtier, oilier version of leather.

What happens, though, if there was a third way, one that didn’t require plastic or cattle?

During the nineties, while pleather was having its major moment, Dr. Carmen Hijosa had other ideas in mind. In 1993, working as a consultant on the leather industry for The World Bank in the Philippines, Hijosa noticed two opposing phenomena. Firstly, chemical tanning was causing huge environmental issues; secondly, local artisans were using plant fibres in traditional weaving.

Setting up Ananas Anam and inspired to create her own mesh-like textile from tropical waste, Hijosa stumbled across a humble resource: the pineapple leaf. “The result of this was Piñatex; a new, plant-based textile that could be commercially produced, provide positive social and economic impact while maintaining a low environmental footprint throughout its life cycle,” Alexandra Richardson, Branding and Communications Manager for Ananas Anam, tells FUTUREVVORLD.

The process is genius and makes use of the stuff you don’t find in your Piña Colada. “After the pineapples have been harvested for food, the leaves of the plant, which are considered waste, are either left behind to rot or burned,” Richardson explains. “Ananas Anam partners with farming co-operatives and partner farms to collect these waste pineapple leaves.” Suitable leaves are bundled up and the fibre is extracted, purified, meshed, coated and finished: leftover biomass is used as biofuel or fertiliser.

Crucially, it doesn’t just offer a greener outcome, but a greener income for farmers. “In the past, the pineapple farmers have been solely reliant on selling the fruit and the income has been very seasonal,” Richardson explains. “By valorising their leaf waste, we have created diversified and additional income streams and created jobs in the rural areas of the farming communities.” Over 300 jobs were created in rural farming communities in 2021 and 75 indigineous leaf harvesters were employed, backed by a fair pay promise and B-Corp status.

Dr. Hijosa, though, wasn’t alone. For most of us, until a few years ago, ‘fruit leather’ meant some sort of sugary roll-up snack made from dehydrated apples, apricots or whatever else your Mum could sneak into your lunchbox. Now, though, you’re more likely to find it in closets than cupboards.

See, fake leather made out of fruit is big business right now, promising the aesthetics of leather without the uneasy ethics, the plant-based status of pleather without the plastic. Figures vary, but it’s suggested that the bio-based leather market is set to grow with a CAGR of 47.5% by 2027, with others suggesting it’s already worth just shy of $650m USD, not bad for a sector that barely existed a few years back.

It’s not just Piñatex that has a market segment, though, and it’s not just pineapple; take apple leather, made from pureeing the leftover pomace and peel Bolzano’s apple juice industry, produced under the name AppleSkin by Mabel and patented by Frumat. It sees apple powder mixed with pigment and then rolled out, creating a leather-like sheet.

Then, for the oenophiles, there’s GrapeSkin produced by the similarly-named Vegea. Repurposing waste from Italian vineyards and backed by Start & Cup, H&M and PETA, grape marc (skin and stalk) is dried, the bio-oil obtained and then polymerized into sheets of leather.

Elsewhere, there’s mango leather, made by Rotterdam’s Fruit Leather using mashed-up local market leftovers and prickly pear leather using Mexican cacti. Mushrooms, meanwhile, might not fit the theme, but are a major part of the movement; MycoWorks has raised another $125m USD this year for its Mycelium fabric, touted as a luxury, premium alternative.

Part of the soar in value is that designers and fashion houses have quickly cottoned on to the hype, turning to fruit leather producers for new collections. AppleSkin, for example, has been used for wallets by Oliver Co. and combat boots by Viron; GrapeSkin by H&M and Meng Du; mango leather by Luxtra and Piñatex by a whole host of names including Hugo Boss, Marici and Nike.

Fashion, it seems, has officially turned fruitarian. It’s been quick to hype-up the alternatives as fruity miracles, too. What’s not to love? They’re totally vegan, swap plastic for organic matter, have positive side-effects for local artisans and businesses, reduce waste, avoid cattle farming, help produce biofuel and give PRs and consumers a sexy story about their new shirt, bag or shoe. It’s a miracle, no? And a quick one at that. “When I wrote Fashionopolis in 2019, this was in the testing phase,” Dana Thomas told The Guardian. “Now it’s being rolled out commercially – it’s thrilling to see it happening.”

There is, though, like everything in our world except for an awful game of baseball, a catch. See, while fruit leather is mostly made out of fruit, there are some small-print ingredients in the mix, the kind that would freak out aforementioned packed-lunch-box-Mum. Right now, we’re not at a stage where durable, pliable, waterproof leather can be made solely out of fruit, meaning that it’s often fortified with other materials; sometimes, ones that aren’t even disclosed.

“We are one of the few companies in the next-gen textile industry to publicly share the composition of our material,” Richardson says. “We communicate about our composition transparently, to ensure that our customers can make an educated decision about choosing our products.” She explains that Piñatex contains 72% pineapple leaf and the rest is 18% polylactic acid (from corn), 5% bio-based PU and 5% new PU, which means, overall, it’s impressively 95% renewable or bio-based.

AppleSkin, meanwhile, is totally bio-based or recycled, but doesn’t actually contain loads of apples; only 32% of it is apple waste, while the remainder is 34% organic cotton and 34% recycled PU, compared to GrapeSkin’s 55% grape, 22% bio-PU and 23% recycled polyester. The composition of Fruitleather Rotterdam’s mango material isn’t made public – all we know is that it’s entirely natural.

The purest fibres aren’t from apples, mangos, pineapples or grapes but bananas and oranges; Orange Fiber, used by Salvatore Ferragamo, is 100% citrus in its purest form, while BANANATEX is nothing but, well, bananas. Both, though, aren’t the kind of fabric that can be used in lieu of leather. “All our wovens and knits so far are made from 100% banana fibre,” says BANANATEX CEO Hannes Schoenegger. “It’s a woven or knitted textile and therefore only partially used as a leather alternative.”

In terms of actual leather alternatives, then, none of them are purely fruit. This creates the first criterion when thinking about which one is most sustainable; after all, while they’re usually grouped together into a neatly balanced salad, not all fruit leathers are made equal.

Comparing them by composition, though, is easier said than done; Piñatex, for example, contains way more fruit than AppleSkin (win!) but also has virgin PU (loss!). Then there’s the issue of whether it’s used as a coating, or the base of a garment or shoe. “While other manufacturers use fruit-based elements within the surface coating of the textile, Piñatex contains the waste pineapple leaf fibres in the base of the material,” Richardson notes. She also argues that Piñatex is superior due to it using pineapple leaves (a waste product) rather than actual pineapples (a useful resource); essentially, it matters whether saying you’re not using pulp is all just fiction.

We’re not done yet, though: how about the issue of which fruit is in itself more sustainable? Oranges and apples, for example, are much easier (and greener!) to farm than, say, pineapples and bananas; and, depending on where you live, might require a lot less ‘fashion miles’ to get to you. Perhaps the most pertinent issue, though, is durability; can fruit leather really last as long as actual leather, and, if so, which one is best? Since it’s so novel, there’s no real fruitful response to how long-lasting each one can be; while all variants on the market promise durability and being waterproof, it’s difficult to imagine it currently outlasting leather, but investing in it now will only see fabrication methods improve.

So what’s the future for fruit fashion? With each manufacturer aiming to pip one another at the post, innovation is rampant; Piñayarn, for example, is Ananas Anam’s latest venture, blended with “low-impact and plant-based fibres to create a compostable spun yarn for knitting and weaving”. Cactus leather is also particularly trendy right now and there’s likely a whole array of fruits not yet pureed for their leathery potential (jackfruit leather would definitely make the whole plant-based thing full-circle).

Really, time will tell in terms of durability; but it’s impossible not to feel enchanted by these well-intentioned experiments and the narratives they create, imbuing each product with a story that might make them more likely to be cherished, treasured and maintained. Perhaps there’s a whole new spin-off shoe repair industry on the horizon: fruit cobblers…