A typical example is an article that turned up online in Autocar this week, listing details of non-leather materials test data for which I would not know where to find the leather equivalent. The excuses are many. “Competitive materials have historically been so poor, everyone knows they are rubbish” has often been the cry, but for the ten years of Leather Naturally we have been saying that their quality has been improving. We even have a well publicised graphic showing the top-end of the leather market being threatened. The one I have has a copyright mark from 2012, but we worked on it earlier than that. It is hard to accept that nobody in our industry, being warned of the pending threat, actually did any comparative testing.

To understand the wickedness, and I think it is a fair term to use, in the production of some of these synthetics, our own industry has not helped keep us aware of the reality. Instead, I mostly quote Peter Hessler from his 2010 book Country Driving. He is an American journalist and author who lived many years in China, about which he wrote three books. Country Driving is about economics and development with a focus on communities being transformed by China’s urbanisation. It is separated into three books, The Wall, The Village and The Factory. In the Factory he travels in Southern Zhejiang, around Wenzhou and Lishui, where he meandered into various plants, met many officials from whom he learned the amazing statistics of China’s meteoric growth. On page 307 in Lishui he came across a cluster of factories making ‘pleather’, as he puts it, short-hand for “plastic leather”.

DMF causes liver damage, female workers have increased risk of stillbirths
We currently correctly emphasise the fossil fuel origins of synthetics, but there are many other issues we should consider. Over the next few pages he discusses in detail the use of dimethylformamide (DMF) in the clearest and simplest way: “DMF has been used for many years in Asia to manufacture artificial leather (‘pleather’). DMF is used to dissolve a polyurethane formulation which is precipitated onto a fabric backing.” He continues:
“People who work with DMF often suffer from watery eyes, dry throat, and coughing. They lose their sense of smell and they become intolerant of alcohol. Long-term exposure to DMF causes liver damage, and studies suggest that female workers have increased risk of stillbirths”. The factories got going in Wenzhou early in this thirty year Chinese development, before rules and regulations set in, so leather and footwear representatives visiting became used to the “dirty brown air and sickly sweet smell lingering over the airport”. By the end of the naughties, Wenzhou had pushed the factories out and they had ended up in Lishui. As the author explains “women who hadn’t yet had children usually avoided working with pleather, because of rumours that the chemicals cause birth defects. And men only worked there if the money was good – pleather factories had to offer more than the minimum wage.”

I have heard that DMSO and other technologies are now replacing DMF, but this was only ten years ago, and worse than anything, the leather industry gets blamed for it. So even a little delving into the facts provides useful material to defend leather and starts to even out the lack of balance in transparency. Clearly, we do need to have proper scientific and analytical data to back this up, not cherry pick from an inquisitive journalist. Equally, it is a poor approach to marketing to spend our lives attacking competitors. But when asked for comparative facts, it is even poorer if we are unable to provide them; and when we do, they must be honest and reliable.

Remember many competitive materials have top-coats very similar to leather; indeed often provided by the identical suppliers. So often many of the test results look very similar. But what about deeper questions: their longevity in use, what causes damage – light, heat, humidity, abrasion, time, can they be repaired and what happens at end-of-life? These questions, along with a full test analysis and an understanding of their chemical origins and manufacture, need to be available for all leather alternative materials.

We cannot complain about losing out to consumer or brand choice, unless that choice has been unfairly influenced, such as when the term “leather” is used in these circumstances to mislead consumers. In many countries we have started to fight back, but it is not enough.

Most tanners have difficulty describing the issues with competitive materials in use, and currently I know of no good comparative test results tanners can use in any sector. Yet, our competitors have those results, as they have used the results for leather as a target. That leaves us fighting with one hand behind our back.

Mike Redwood
January 22, 2020

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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