Many brands describe their synthetic leather products as faux leather, vegan leather, leather look. These alternative leather fabrics are cruelty-free and vegan because they are not the leather from animals. However, they are not eco-friendly because the fabrics are either polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU). PVC and PU are plastics which consist of poisonous sub-stances and a high percentage of chloride, a highly toxic chemical element
'Most faux leathers consist of a knitted polyester base with a PVC or polyurethane coating. But because they're essentially plastic-based, they come with many of the same environmental problems of other synthetics. They're usually manufactured from fossil fuels and take a long time to break down once they reach the end of their useful life.' Learn more
James&Co does not tailor its apparel in chemicals-based PU or PVC. The leather look alternative fabrics used by James&Co are sourced from a number of different technology factories who have been expending significant R&D over the years in developing the alternative that is not chemicals-based and is less harmful to the environment.
You can read more about eco leather and the imperatives and opportunities to embrace it and ditch traditional polyurethane in our book The Only Choice Is Change. Here is a summary:
- Waterbased PU or WBPU
The earliest lab-grown alternative to traditional PU faux/vegan leather replaced the chemical DMF with water. This alternative is known as waterbased PU, or waterborne PU, or DMF-free PU. WBPU is the usual abbreviation. It is also often called’ eco vegan leather’ or ‘eco leather’ as James&Co frequently does.
As we expand in Chapter 3, the development of WBPU is predominantly happening in Chinese factories in response to the expectation that traditional PU will ultimately be banned and to the commitment to sustainability.
This fabric has improved in quality for apparel & is available for James&Co to tailor its outerwear products in as it leads the way to ditch traditional PU fabric for more sustainable fabrics. Read more about WBPU here.
Leading retail brands such as Zara and H&M are also exploring the shift to this fabric, the critical determinator being the its quality for tailoring apparel. As it focusses on the right alternative, Zara has listed the chemical DMF on its Restricted Substance List and banned factories from manufacturing with traditional PU.
WBPU is welcome as an eco-friendly alternative to solvent-based PU. However its manufacture still requires the application of fossil fuels – mostly petroleum-based products – and this puts it outside the scope of the circular economy and still emits high levels of CO2 in manufacture.
It is also not bio-degradable and therefore has the same end-of-life disposable issues as traditional PU. Read more.
- Bio-based PU
Technology companies have been focussing on replacing the fossil fuels component of WBPU with environmentally benign inputs.
A more sustainable fabric being developed by technology companies such as Covestro is ‘bio-based PU’. The significant differentiator from WBPU is that bio-based PU is not fossil-fuel based – using instead renewable raw materials such as vegetable oils (castor oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil etc.).
It is said that bio-based components have a 30% better ecological footprint than comparable products made from fossil fuel-resources.
In addition to advantages of lower cost, good thermal properties and acceptable strength properties which applications developed with bio-based PU have, biodegradability is significant.
- CO2 based PU
A specific bio-based PU development is that which captures CO2 from the air and using a chemical process to convert it into new including fibres for textiles. Read more.
Pinatex Pineapple Leaf Leather
The James&Co brand began in 2012 with a focus on retailing outerwear tailored in vegan leather. In 2018 we replaced the vegan leather fabric made with chemicals with sustainable alternative leather fabrics. And we moved the focus from retailing to partnering with retailers in the sustainable fashion industry.
We were approved to buy Pinatex pineapple leaf leather in 2018 by the owner corporation Ananas Anam.
Piñatex is woven from the long fibres in pineapple leaves, the byproduct of the pineapple industry, which are traditionally discarded or burned. The fibres in the leaves are fine, strong and flexible. They are harvested and stripped by pineapple farmers in the Philippines.
In addition to creating employment income for the farming communities at the harvesting stage, additional economic value is added for the communities by turning the leftover leaf biomass into a natural fertiliser or biofuel.
The fibres are turned into a mesh and finished into Pinatex in Spain.
Cork Fabric, also called “cork leather” results from harvesting from a cork oak tree.
The cork oak tree - Quercus suber - grows mainly in Portugal where it grows up to 20 meters high. With approximately 2,200,000 hectares of cork forest worldwide (34% in Portugal and 27% in Spain), the annual production is about 200,000 tonnes.
A cork tree takes 25 years to grow enough to a circumference of about 60cm to be harvested. It is then that the cork (bark) is stripped from the tree. The tree takes 9-10 years to recreate the cork and be harvested again. With a lifetime of about 300 years a tree creates a large amount of cork.
Workers who specialize in removing the cork are called extractors. The removal is done with a sharp axe to make vertical cuts to the cork while take care not to damage the underlying phellogen and the tree.
After harvesting the cork is stacked in the factory or the forest and air-dried for six months before carriage to a processor where it is steamed to make the fabric even more elastic. Heat and pressure are applied to the cork to press it into blocks that are cut into slices which are then and flexible with a leather like structure. The fabric can be dyed and printed. Perfect for manufacturing accessories. And importantly, the production of cork fabric does not involve the use of any chemicals.
Cork fabric has many sustainable features:
the cork oak proliferates naturally by dropping acorns that sow themselves and mature into productive grees
when an aged tree is removed after 300 years of existence, 2 new seedinglys are planted in its place
cork products can be easily recycle due to natural production without chemicals
it releases significantly less CO2 than synthetically produced fabrics
Cork leather products are top quality and supple and they won't crack or crumble. They are 100% natural, water repellent, stain resistant and scratch-proof.
Coming onto the market in 2019 is the innovative plant-based vegan leather alternative made in Mexico from cactus leaves.
The alternative leather is made from nopal cactus leaves grown on plantation of the two entrepreneurs who developed it in the Mexican state of the Zacatecas. The two innovators were intrigued by the nopal cactus because it grows abundantly in Mexico and does not need any water to grow. They spent two years doing research and development for the way to turn nopal cactus leaves into cactus-based leather.
Mature leaves are cut from organically grown cactus plants, cleaned, mashed, and left out in the sun to dry for three days prior to processing. It can then be dyed naturally using methods developed by the entrepreneurs' company. This makes for vegan leather that is certified organic and can hold up to regular usage for nearly a decade.
Cactus leather is breathable, partially biodegradable and doesn’t contain any plastic.The fabric is all-natural and cruelty-free, certified organic, and can hold up to regular usage for nearly a decade. It is soft, durable, very high-quality and available in a variety of densities that can create products like car seats, shoes, handbags - and even apparel. James&Co was an early requester of sample fabrics and they are so impressive that we moving ahead with tailoring our outerwear in the the fabric.