Move over cotton, there’s another natural fibre set to take the fashion industry by storm, and it comes from discarded pineapple leaves. Believed to be softer, smoother, cooler, less wrinkly and more absorbent with higher dye retention, yarn spun from pineapple leaves can be used for all sorts of textile applications from denim to apparel, footwear and upholstery. On top of that, it blends extremely well with other fibres such as organic cotton, lyocell, Tencel, and recycled polyester.
Of course, you must be wondering: After centuries of pineapple production, why hasn’t anyone figured out how to repurpose the rest of the fruit or other types of agriculture for that matter? According to Harold Koh, founder of start-up Nextevo — an upstream provider of ready-to-spin yarn made from agricultural waste — a lot of it has to do with economies of scale.
“Frankly speaking, there’s not much technology to it. For decades, Filipinos have been making barongs (traditional shirts) from pineapple or banana stems. But why hasn’t it caught on? Because the people doing this come from small cottage industries which are not able to scale up to meet the demands of key industry players who need to buy in big quantities. If the small supply chains can’t keep up with demand, then the big brands won’t pick it up,” shares the 61-year-old father of two.
Kickstarting the next evolution in sustainable fashion is Nextevo — launched in Singapore in 2019 by Koh — which currently works with farmers in Thailand and Indonesia to transform agricultural waste — in particular, pineapple leaves — into sustainable textiles at a commercial scale needed to meet market demands. Currently, it’s targeting four key segments: footwear, apparel, home textiles, and interior furnishings.
Not only does Koh want to become the world’s leading sustainable natural fibre producer, he is also determined to turn this into a circular industry with a zero-waste business model. “In Southeast Asia alone, we generate about 600 to 800 million metric tonnes of waste in a year from agriculture. While some of it can be turned into biomass for energy, as a cleaner alternative to coal, a lot of it is just sitting in a landfill somewhere or waiting to be burned,” reports Koh.
To tackle this, Nextevo has devised a vertically integrated supply chain where partnering pineapple producers such as Siam Agro-Food Industry will be in charge of buying and collecting waste from the farmers and delivering them to the textile factories. Koh hopes to impact over 5,000 farmers by 2025 by supplementing their income by up to 30%. “Many of them are living below the poverty line so I think the extra pocket money incentivises them to not burn or dump. This positive social impact ultimately creates environmental impact and assures sustainability in the long run,” he shares.
To empower partnering textile OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), Koh is investing heavily in automation to speed up output and improve the yield from the pineapple fibres — something they struggle with using manual decorticating machines. The goal he says is to produce over 1,000 tonnes of pineapple-based fabrics in two years.
Not limited to pineapple leaves, Nextevo will also be upcycling coconut husks to be turned into cocopeat mainly for horticulture and greenhouses, as well as coir fibres for home furnishings such as mats, cushions and mattresses. By looking to alternative fibres for fabric production, Koh tackles several environmental problems such as mitigating the exhaustive use of cotton, lowering carbon emissions and pollution (fashion accounts for roughly one-tenth of global carbon emissions), and preventing dumping and burning.
Koh is just as excited as his clients about the potential for agricultural waste to be the next evolution for apparel production. “This has gone beyond a passion project for me because there are a lot of people with me on this journey now and most of them are excited to participate in a long-term sustainability drive. I think there’s also a responsibility to make this happen as everyone wants to support eco-conscious sustainable consumption,” he attests.
From automobiles to pineapples
Before Koh worked in the agriculture industry — most recently as president and CEO for Indonesian fruit supplier Great Giant Pineapple (GGP) — his career some 35 years ago started in the automobile industry where he worked for the likes of BMW, Borneo Motors, Volkswagen and General Motors. For a decade at General Motors, he took up various management positions, even moving to the Philippines and Indonesia, handling everything from distribution to manufacturing, sourcing and product development for brands like Opal and Chevrolet.
After a long and fruitful career in the car industry, he tried his hand at equipment handling of heavy machinery for Cargotech where he managed the entire Asia Pacific region for two years. Serendipitously during that time, he received a phone call from an Indonesian acquaintance asking him to head GGP, the world’s second-largest pineapple producer with the world’s largest single integrated facility (plantation, canning factory and processing plant) in one location spanning over 32,000ha.
“Agriculture? I knew nothing about agriculture and I didn’t even have the heart to tell them I never ate pineapples,” he laughs. “I deliberated for a long time because handling agriculture is a totally different animal and one I had no knowledge in. It took me another five months to make up my mind but by Nov 2009, I was ready to join them and moved back to Jakarta where I lived for another nine years. I had fun and learned a lot.”
During his time at GGP, Koh came to better understand the importance of sustainability — a time when few companies were concerned with the environment — and what more could be done to tackle climate change. GGP’s zero-waste policy sought to utilise and recycle all by-products resulting from its operations. For example, wastewater from pineapple and cassava production is converted back into biogas and steam to power the plants. The result is cleaner energy with more money saved.
Handling waste was also important. Composting was practised on a small scale — too much of it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — so GPP found other ways to upcycle pineapple waste, including using it as a cattle feed, nutritional supplement, meat tenderiser and ingredient in beer.
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One of the few companies that prioritise environmental impact, GGP also had Koh working on selling carbon credit — earned when you emit less greenhouse gases — to sell to other large corporations. “Tesla for example has so much carbon credit that it sells to big car companies. In theory, you have to buy carbon credit to reduce your carbon consumption,” he explains.
When trash is treasure
After close to a decade of learning the ins and outs of agriculture manufacturing, Koh was 58 and near-ready to retire, when some friends urged him to join the biomass business — turning discarded wood into palettes to be sold for fuel or energy. While dabbling in this, Koh received another unanticipated call from another industry friend from the Sambu Group — the world’s largest coconut producer — to find out what he could do with all their discarded coconut husks.
“I told him, ‘you’re asking me to become a karung guni (scrap dealer)!’” he jokes. After doing some research, Koh decided to utilise his vast knowledge in agricultural waste and turn it into a scalable business of his own with the start of his next evolution, Nextevo.
“I realised that there is an abundance of agricultural waste in Southeast Asia. There’s so much potential to do this but I wasn’t going to do coconut husks alone. I wanted to start with pineapple leaves because I had all the contacts at my fingertips,” says Koh.
He continues: “In my mind, running a business, even a sustainable one, is always about scalability and revenue. I think I have the opportunity to do this at a large enough scale that we can attract major fashion brands and global players. Sustainability is no longer a trend, it’s a requirement by the consumer and governments, so this is the perfect time to enter the market.”
Koh says that his company is on target to start producing commercial quantities of the new product by Q1 2022. The year-long pilot has gone from product development, proof-of-concept, and practical trial right through to initial production.
Currently, Nextevo has collaborated with homegrown sustainable fashion brand NOST to produce artisan-woven batik fabrics made from pineapple leaf fibre yarns (PALF) handcrafted by artisans based in Indonesia. Now on display at the National Design Centre till Aug 15, the PALFCRAFT capsule breathes new life into agricultural waste and presents an exciting sustainable alternative to the fashion and textile industry, while preserving heritage craft.
Koh also hints that Nextevo might be working with a footwear manufacturer to supply PALF to make shoe uppers.
The future of waste
Working towards being a truly zero-waste company, Nextevo is currently also in the midst of developing further solutions to convert by-products during the production process into value-added solutions — finding a home for the ‘waste-of-the- waste’ — which Koh says is top secret at the moment.
What he’s willing to reveal for now is that plans are underway to kickstart coconut husk production with continued refinement of PALF blends and textile applications. Koh is also looking at the possibilities of refashioning other agricultural waste materials like sugar cane bagasse, durian and rice husks, and empty palm oil fruit bunches.
“We are committed to doing our part for People and Planet. We always look at the whole supply chain from end-to-end to make sure that environmental sustainability is always at the forefront of our businesses.”