S'pore start-up turns pineapple leaves into cotton-like fabric you can wear

Loungewear, shoes and even a biker outfit.

Gawain Pek | December 07, 2022, 04:26 PM

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Most clothes today are made out of a blend between polyester and organic materials, typically cotton.

Unless you have been living under a rock (or in a pineapple under the sea), you would have heard that there are downsides to this mix.

Polyester, a kind of plastic, and synthetic fibres are a prime source of microplastic pollution, Bloomberg reported.

Soil degradation, pesticide and fertiliser run-off, and high water consumption are some of the issues associated with cotton cultivation.

One start-up in Singapore, Nextevo, is working to provide alternatives to conventional textiles by turning agricultural waste, pineapple leaves in particular, into fabric for clothes.

Extracting fibres

Nextevo's founder, Harold Koh, 61, explained that they partner with cannery companies and farmer co-operatives to buy pineapple leaves from local farmers in Indonesia and Thailand.

Once collected, the leaves undergo a process of "decortication", where pineapple leaf fibres are extracted from the leaves.

Fibres revealed after breaking apart a pineapple leaf. Photo by Gawain Pek.

Pineapple leaf fibre (PALF) extraction at Nextevo’s production facility in Thailand. Photo courtesy of Nextevo.

They are then sun-dried before being processed into a ready-to-spin, cottonised form.

Natural sun-drying of pineapple leaf fibres (PALF). Photo courtesy of Nextevo.

Cottonised, ready-to-spin (RTS) PALF made from pineapple leaf waste. Photo courtesy of Nextevo.

Then, it is up to the artisans and designers to express their creativity to dye the yarn and pattern the weave.

Photo courtesy of Nextevo.

Woven fabrics made from PALF yarn. Photo by Gawain Pek.

The result at the end of this process is Nextevo's organic pineapple leaf (PALF) textile that, according to Koh, is "very similar" to cotton.

It even has a "cooling feeling" to the touch, Koh added.

Supplementing solutions

Agricultural waste like pineapple leaves is organic and will decompose naturally, enriching the soil with nutrients.

Would removing the leaves from farm grounds impede the nutrient cycling process? And how would Nextevo's PALF textile innovation help with the environmental problems plaguing the fashion industry?

Different types of natural fibres alongside Nextevo's PALF. Photo by Gawain Pek.

Firstly, Koh said that not all the pineapple leaves are collected.

"On average, one plant [has] about 40 leaves." Koh estimates that only about 25 to 30 per cent of the leaves are collected. Additionally, only the "good leaves" can be used.

The rest of the leaves are left on the farm grounds for nature to do its thing.

Typically, some farmers also burn the heaps of agricultural waste to accelerate the decomposition process, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Koh suggests that collecting the leaves helps reduce the impact of this environmentally unfriendly process.

On the fashion front, Koh said that the role of Nextevo is "very simple".

"By blending our pineapple leaf fibre, for example if you blend it with 20 per cent of our fibre, you will reduce 20 per cent of the unsustainable material", he reasoned.

According to Koh, PALF textiles are biodegradable, which means that fabrics with a 100 per cent blend of organic materials would inherit the biodegradable quality as well.

Once turned into fabric, PALF textile acts as a "sustainable alternative" to typical fabric blends, he explained.

More importantly, unlike cotton, pineapple leaves are the natural by-product of pineapple cultivation, so no "extra resources" are needed to grow the leaves.

"The only resource you need is hiring somebody to cut the leaves", Koh said.

Pineapple farm landscape in Thailand. Photo courtesy of Nextevo.

This is also where Nextevo's innovation leaves an upstream impact.

By buying the leaves from pineapple farmers, they are provided with extra supplementary income.

Pineapple leaf waste collection provides additional income for farmers in Southeast Asia. Photo courtesy of Nextevo.

Considering the benefits on both the environmental and social front, Koh describes Nextevo as an "ESG (environmental, social and governance) business".

ESG stands for environmental, social and governance, and is a conceptual framework businesses use to look at their impact on the environment, society and its stakeholders.

According to Koh, a preliminary desktop-simulated lifecycle impact assessment (LCA) —which is a study to quantify the environmental impact in every stage of a process, product or service — has shown that Nextevo's products perform better than cotton.

Nextevo plans to carry out a full LCA some time in 2023 or 2024.

Why pineapple leaves?

Nextevo was not borne out of a spur-of-the-moment inspiration, but from Koh's hefty experience.

He ran large multi-national corporations for the majority of his career, the last nine of which was spent at a pineapple production company.

When he announced his plans to leave the job in early 2019, he was approached by a friend who was the owner of one of the largest coconut producers in the world.

The friend, Koh said, invited him to his Indonesian factory to show him the amount of agricultural waste left behind after harvests, especially coconut husks.

"He said 'look at the husk, we have plenty of husk, we need to get rid of the husk!'", Koh recounted.

His friend spent the next three days trying to convince him to get into the business of innovating with the coconut husks.

Koh was initially unmoved.

"Why don't you do it yourself!" Koh joked, before assuring us that he did not actually tell his friend that.

Harold Koh, founder of Nextevo. Photo by Gawain Pek.

Later, Koh admitted that his friend's pitch had indeed enlightened him about the "huge" agricultural waste problem.

It got him thinking.

Koh realised with his previous job experience, he was plugged in to the pineapple production industry, and was well positioned to do something within it.

"If I did something on pineapples, what could I do? Maybe pineapple leaves. Maybe you can extract the fibre and the fibre can be turned into textile", Koh said, laying out his thought process.

With the support of his friend and decades of entrepreneurial experience, Koh started Nextevo in June 2019.

Currently, Nextevo is headquartered in Singapore where its product development, sales and marketing, as well as fundraising functions are located.

While collection of leaves are from both Indonesia and Thailand, production takes places mainly in the latter.

The start-up is also looking to expand its operations to the Philippines and Vietnam.

Koh pointed out that they are the first in Singapore to be working on natural fibres.

Zeroing in on waste

To be clear, Nextevo is not a fashion company.

Right now, Nextevo is working on applying the same textile innovation to different agricultural wastes, like coconut husks and banana leaves.

They are also aiming to achieve fabric blended with 50 per cent PALF textile.

So far, Nextevo has worked with local designer NOST to come up with a loungewear series.

Photo by Gawain Pek.

It has also launched a pair of biker jeans and jacket with international clothing brand, Bershka, made up of 22 per cent of Nextevo's fabric.

Photo courtesy of Nextevo.

More product innovations, like sports shoes, are in the pipeline.

Photo by Gawain Pek.

Koh shared that Nextevo's goal is neither to upend the fashion industry nor "save the world" themselves.

"We cannot be an expert in everything", Koh humbly admits.

Instead, their principle or mission is "zero waste".

The company chooses to focus on collecting agricultural waste and turning them into fibre, and will leave the fashion innovation to the artisans and designers they collaborate with.

What Koh finds to be "very fulfilling", however, is how Nextevo can generate positive social and environmental impact through its innovations.

"But I think we play a part to help to reduce the carbon footprint. I think that's very important, helping to reduce carbon footprint while also increasing positive social impact, especially for farmers in Indonesia and the northern part of Thailand."

Top image via Gawain Pek, Nextevo