Innovation is important for leather. With new processing options such as olive tanned leather and Zeolite, new ideas have been introduced into leathermaking but investment in competitive materials – biobased and synthetic – has been outstripping anything the leather industry has spent.

In her editorial letter in a recent issue of How to Spend It magazine, Jo Ellison introduced an article on alternative “milks” by writing: “Have you converted to the new plant-based milk drinks yet? As I write, I am enjoying a mug of coffee and considering that I may be one of the last remaining resistants in the world (I’m full-cream all the way).

“But one of the main reasons I’ve stayed a naysayer on the oat and nut varieties are the conflicting reports on how much environmental good they do. Almond milk seems about as ecologically damaging as can be imagined when you consider the vast supplies of water required to industrialise the product, while oat milk is frequently stuffed full of glucose when it is commercially produced.”

Until last year’s FILK research report on the biobased materials attacking leather, the view was similar. We could get no information on their carbon, water and energy footprints, only hype, as they were protecting IP, or awaiting patents. The FILK study was damning – many are loaded with the same fossil-based polymers as synthetic materials so they could meet the minimum physical properties for targeted end uses.

While synthetics manufacturing is well understood, this was new knowledge about biobased materials. They are still investing and will improve at some stage, but buyers need to apply scientific scepticism to claims about these materials being fully natural and only based on biomaterials. In this, the FILK report has been more useful than I had expected at publication.

Don’t believe the hype

The recent Theranos court case in the USA offers a major lesson that using “trade secrecy” to avoid disclosure of intellectual property (IP) gets used to hide problems.

Hype was an aspect of the case that Elizabeth Holmes used to persuade investors to put enormous sums into a company which could not do the easy blood tests it promised. In leather and competitive materials, investors may lose but so do manufacturers, brands, consumers and the planet if they are being deliberately told incomplete or misleading science.

The top tanners in the leather industries, especially those involved in the Leather Working Group programme, have a strong record for transparency. Regions such as the EU, Brazil, and China have various programmes and labelling schemes which offer many guarantees but are not always clear how fully comprehensive they are. To really engage in this dialogue, we need to get full disclosure from many more tanners in the industry covering the environmental, social and governance (ESG) agenda.

Fossil-based coatings

Dr Michael Meyer, Managing Director of FILK, makes excellent points on the subject in his recent interview with Barbara Markert in The Spin Off. He highlights the varied structures and chemistries of alternate materials and that plastic materials are often added to meet only one end use, whereas the natural leather structure works for all end uses. He surmises that most biobased materials would do better to have a textile backing rather than trying to achieve specification through a heavy fossil-based surface coating.

The complexity is made clear when he answers a question on Piñatex, which is well advanced with a plastic-free coating. He said: “Piñatex is an exciting material. That is indisputable. I would describe it as a non-woven based on cellulose fibres with a binder. The question here is again: What is important to the consumer? A nice surface that also feels good, or a soft structure? In my eyes, Pinatex is not comparable to leather. For me, it is a material in its own right, but not really a leather alternative.”

He is right. As a supporter of Piñatex as a material and a tiny investor, I am pleased that it is now a B Corporation which few if any tanneries have become. It has been determined since its start to be a circular material and an effective one in its own right.

More importantly for these new materials, while getting the support of animal rights groups offers free publicity, and a few fanatical followers, the big benefit to the planet and to the bottom line would be to replace synthetics. Consumers who ethically do not want leather will have a choice, but we will be saved the multiple costs of plastic from its fossil fuel origins, much more problematic manufacture than leather, short useful life and dreadful biodegrading problems.

And that is why I applaud the tanneries and chemical suppliers who have chosen to work with them. Our problem with these materials should only relate to their poor marketing and harmful, often illegal claims, which would end if we worked together.

Mike Redwood

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

Publication and Copyright of “Redwood Comment” remains with the publishers of International Leather Maker. The articles cannot be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the publisher.