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Leather Alternatives: a “fashionable” concept?

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Leather is probably one of the oldest materials used by mankind. Even before humanity spun yarns, invented fabrics, and then evolved to wearing garments, leather was the first material that human race found to drape around our skin. From early man to the modern day, leather has undoubtedly played a crucial part in the development of civilisation.

Leather’s Evolution

As use of leather and leather craft survived eras of Ancient Rome, Dark ages, Vikings, Middle Ages, Renaissance, the era of Enlightenment, and then the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian Age, moving to the Progressive era of 1900s and now the Modern times from 1950 till date.

With the spread of industrialization and invention of machineries, came the demand for new kinds of leathers, supple leathers, softer leathers, and leathers with fashionable appearances. This demand saw the rise of innovation in tanning facilities and new chemical developments for sophisticated processing methods that add to the aesthetics of leather, making it a high value luxury item. Luxurious leathers continue to be the material of choice not just for commercial and residential furniture but also for automotive, aviation and marine applications as well.

Leather has seen prosperity and the global marketplaces keep surging with the demand. Exports and imports are always on the rise for leather.

This surge has also seen the evolution of “Faux Leather” or “Synthetic Leather” for price conscious customers and for cheaper applications. Synthetic leathers have been around since the 19th century, and in 1963, the first major faux (synthetic) leather was produced by the company, DuPont. It was made from a polyester (plastic fibre) base with a polyurethane (plastic) coating.

Later, “leatherette”, another kind of synthetic leather was made from covering fibres with PVC (a plastic) was introduced. Now, this Alternative Leather industry does not even need leather to be produced.

With Go Green, Eco Friendly and Sustainability Issues becoming more and more important, the global fashion industry is now using more of synthetic leathers, PU, manmade rubbers, and PVC materials for leather alternative products. There is now a natural decline in demand for real leather. Also, the global economy is shifting out of an outsourced model. The theory is that by shifting production to countries with lower-wages and materials costs, leather alternative products can be produced cheaper, resulting in a lower target prices and cost savings.

The demand is so high that “faux” leathers / synthetic leather products made from plastic and other compounds, are becoming popular to meet demand. They also serve as less-expensive, more animal-friendly options for leather sourcing.

The Business of Synthetic Leather

As per various industry reports, the synthetic leather market size is estimated to be USD 63.3 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach USD 78.5 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 4.4% between 2020 and 2025.

The market is mainly driven by the rising demand for synthetic leather in end-use industries such as footwear, furnishing, automotive, clothing, bags, purses & wallets, and others. Factors such as growing demand from footwear industry, no animal killing involved, advantages over pure leather, and increasing demand for luxury cars and electric vehicles will drive the synthetic leather market. APAC is the key market for synthetic leather, globally, followed by Europe and North America, in terms of volume and value.

PU-based leather has been the largest type for synthetic leather market in 2019 and 2020.

PU-based leather is made by coating a fabric such as polyester or cotton with a flexible polymer. It is further treated by various processes to look like animal hide-based leather. PU-based synthetic leather is made by using soft polymers, hence does not require additional plasticizers. It offers various advantages such as waterproof, lightweight, and softness.

In some cases, PU-based leather may tear easily, but does not fade or crack in sunlight. It is widely preferred in the automotive and clothing industries. PU-based leather is considered more environment-friendly than vinyl-based leather, as it does not create dioxins. PU-based leather is more expensive than PVC-based leather due to its extensive manufacturing process.

It is important to know that Footwear is estimated to be the largest end-use industry in synthetic leather market between 2020 and 2025.

Leather Alternatives now a part of Smart Materials

With the big shift by brands towards greater eco responsibility to source and propose equally new unique concepts, the focus is on responsible creations of Leather alternatives, trims, and accessories.

As a result, Leather is now becoming a part of SMART MATERIALS sector to fulfil its goal of establishing the criteria for more environmentally respectful sourcing.

The new challenge to innovate and create alternatives is being taken by the Tanners and Producers with enthusiasm.

By focusing on companies offering leathers from new animal sources or new alternatives to conventional leather, it is now possible to favour eco-responsibility and make choices based on the desired end product.

As eco responsible innovations evolve and vary with each season, we are seeing different trends in the industry.

Non-woven Microfiber Suede

This is the perfect combination of fabric and PU leather and has a soft touch of fabric and the real leather appearance.

Main Application Area: Car Interiors, Home & Upholstery, Electronics & Fashion Accessories

Both Polyester Microfiber and Polyamide Microfiber options available

Also Recycled Version is now available.

Water based PU Coating Leather

This is a great option for Vegan Leather as it has similar outlook and inner structure of real leather. It normally has a rich surface texture and has no deformation. It can also be waterproof, antifouling and grease resistant.

Main Application Area: Car Interiors, Fashion Accessories, Home & Upholstery

Various Backing Fabrics Options: Non-woven Microfiber Suede, Woven Suede, Cotton, etc.

Also Recycled Version is now available.

Woven & Knitted Suede

This is mainly used in apparels and various finishes/treatments could be applied to both knitted suede and woven suede. Short hair on the surface created by microfiber structure increases the fineness and luxury of the fabric.

Main Application Area: Fashion Accessories, Home & Upholstery

Various Finishes and Designs Options can be created with Customisation.

Also Recycled Version is now available.

Bonded Leather

Bonded leather is leather but not quite. It is made of leather but may not be called leather (in some countries not at all). Bonded leather (also called reconstituted leather/coated leather/blended leather) is made by grinding waste pieces of leather from factories and then mixing them with adhesive/binder to create a layer which is then adhered to a backing surface and then at last given a polyurethane sealant coating; it is then stamped to make it look just like real leather.

This man-made synthetic leather is an extremely popular substitute for the animal skin and has seen a huge demand for upholstery purposes and making leather look-alike garments. In bonded leather, at least 20% material constitutes of real leather scraps.

Consumers hunt for new sensory surprises as well as transparency.

Being eco friendly or eco mindful is not always important for a customer but as brands with brand values aim to be more responsible towards environment, the expectations of a consumer rise. Not only are they interested in new sensory surprises, but they are also interested in now understanding the processes and its transparency. This is yet another form of human evolution.

While faux (vegan) leather is not 100% perfect, it is by far preferable when compared to animal leather. In this age and time, we now know for sure that animal leather is the most environmentally toxic textile of all. And this further demonstrates that there is absolutely no reason that justifies using animals in fashion.

With such a wide range of faux leather types, each varying in their eco-friendliness levels, consumers have endless ethical choices, without compromising on ethics or aesthetics.

The author is Founder & Publisher, TrendLAB | rtwmag.com