Living with alternative materials

Redwood Comment
Published:  22 September, 2022
Credit: Vita Sun/Shutterstock.com

Mike Redwood considers the passing of Queen Elizabeth II and how emulating her calm, cooperative approach could benefit us all, especially when coexisting with “leather alternatives”.

On Monday, September 19 along with the rest of the UK, and many others internationally, I spent the entire day watching the funeral of Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II (1926–2022). It was a poignant moment in a world being relentlessly impacted by turbulent events.

Soon after the pandemic started in early 2020, there was clamour for a return to “normal”, whatever that might have meant. If ever we feel like calling any part of life “normal” again, it is certainly totally different, regardless of where or how we live. A war in Europe and the death of Britain’s longest reigning Monarch make the point.

The material battle that leather is part of

That is the case in the material battle that leather is part of. Without apology, I return to the subject often discussed with a mix of repetition and timely thought. How should we live with them? As live with them we must.

We must remember that leather was the only sheet material when humans first needed to wander about. The later development of pottery, glass, metal and all manner of textiles steadily replaced leather for everything from carrying and drinking vessels to boats, armour, clothing and tents.

To get a better feel for the last two hundred years, take the time to read Robert Kanigel’s book Faux Real. He explains how old materials – iron, wood, leather, wool, straw and mud – “with their roots deep in human history” steadily gave way to newer ones thought to be better, stronger, cheaper or easier to work with than natural ones. Plastic moved into the ascendancy for a century and the term “better than leather”, although used in adverts since the 1800s, was prominent at the launch of DuPont's Corfam in 1963.

For Du Pont's Corfam, the web was polyester fibre with a porous polyurethane binder with a top vapour permeable coating – a polyurethane with a minor amount of polyvinyl chloride resin.

Corfam failed to the astonishment of all, including the tanners I heard talking about it at meetings while I was studying leather science at Leeds. DuPont stopped production in 1971. The shoes could not adapt to the shape of the foot, so could not wear in like normal leather fit. A marginally imperfect fit at purchase meant continued discomfort. Noone bought a second pair aided by a falling leather price.

Perhaps the disaster of Corfam made leather producers overconfident. Growth in world population was fast outstripping the herd sizes needed for milk and dairy products so, while DuPont got their pricing, product and positioning wrong (not a good mix of errors if you have done a basic marketing course), leather never will be available in sufficient volumes to meet all demand; it has spent thousands of years conceding end uses and with the increases in global population over the last decades demands for new materials have never been greater.

Polymer development continued with products like Clarino from Kuraray whose production plants making an “islands in the sea” non-woven I visited in the 1990s. During the 1990s, these much higher quality non-wovens and soft touch coated fabrics developed in Japan and Korea started to move to China and slowly replaced the primitive “pleather” made using DMF with little care for the immense health consequences.

DMF exposure led to birth and liver defects, and a shortened life span. In the 1990s, hundreds of Chinese companies were registered with the term “synthetic leather” as part of their name.

Helped over the last 30 years by the global economic conditions created by China producing cheap goods for the world, Russia providing cheap gas to Europe and the U.S. in particular keeping interest rates low with the help of quantitative easing since the banking crisis, all these oil-based synthetics have been able to drive into our garment and upholstery markets with ease, filling the volume gap left by a shortage of leather. But then they went further.

Matters changed as the animal rights elements of previous pacifist vegans found (false) scientific arguments related to climate change and combined with a fossil fuel lobbying to move liability onto farming.

As a result, a mix of opportunists and well-intentioned entrepreneurs started to produce so-called biomaterials to fit between leather and plastics and meet the need of those vegans who sincerely desire an alternate to animal-based products.

Through a recommendation of an industry colleague, I met one using waste leaves from pineapples to make a cellulosic fabric called Pinatex. Pinatex is, to me, an example of why we must learn to live with such new materials and, when appropriate, get involved. It is potentially a good companion material and a fair competitor.

Recent research has shown us that not all these materials are what they say they are, and it is possible to load small quantities of plants or vegetables into a polymeric soup and call it a biomaterial. The leather industry’s determined use of science and data is now correctly calling these out. That does not invalidate them all.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, several tanneries in Italy helped the Japanese improve the handling and performance of non-woven synthetics, and others have used heavy coatings- thicker than allowable in the definition of leather – to make good use of splits.

Today, a small number of top tanneries are working with the sector in different ways to develop these new materials. There are many good reasons to do so, not least to be involved in the offer of a good product to vegan consumers.

We need to find ways to help remove the mass of polyester and other plastics introduced so thoughtlessly into so many sectors and tanners have the technology and routes to market to help develop new materials that can do the job responsibly. We do need new materials beyond leather, but we need them marketed with integrity and honestly reporting how they are made.

I left the Board of Pinatex some years ago, yet Pinatex has stayed true to their mission. Impoverished farmers around the world get paid for collecting the waste pineapple leaves and doing the early processing, for which machinery is provided. Dedicated work has been ongoing, much of it with Stahl, to replace oil-based content used to enhance performance and finishes with biologically sourced products, and the company is now registered as a B-corporation.

B Corp registration demands full disclosure and means that everyone can monitor the progress of the company and the good, or otherwise, it is doing. I do not understand why tanneries have been so reluctant to obtain B Corp registration.

Leather likes fair competition

But I do think that we need return to the mantra that we have no objection to competition that is fair in marketing and approach and not just cry “plastic” at any potential substitute. Patagonia was a leading B Corp that was founded shortly after the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and, as she has passed the baton to Charles III, so Patagonia has changed ownership last week. Over 70 years, both have shown that a calm, cooperative approach, studying the facts and being faithful to them, will benefit us all. It’s about the beauty and the performance.

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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