Biosynthetic Alternatives


2 October 2019

In September 1964, loyal readers of Good Housekeeping opened their magazine to a new $1.5m advertising campaign. “There is nothing more comfortable than a leather shoe,” read the headline copy, “and Good Housekeeping confirms this.”

The advert had been seeded by the Leather Industries of America, a promotional arm of the US tanning industry which had just doubled its advertising budget from the previous year. “The increase in our advertising and promotional program has been stimulated by the increased promotional activities on the part of manufacturers of plastic shoe-upper material,” explained Mel Salzman, director of the association. In particular, the association was concerned by corfam, a synthetic leather alternative developed by the Dupont company. Salzman needn’t have worried. In 1971, DuPont sold off the rights to its material, blaming a “relatively high cost” for hobbling a material that the New York Times, only four years previously, had eulogised as “challenging the traditional role of leather”.

Despite the failure of the corfam experiment, over the proceeding half-century industry has continued to search for synthetic alternatives to leather. Ultrafabrics, for instance, is a Japanese-American manufacturer of animal-free polyurethane-based performance fabrics. Produced in Japan, Ultrafabrics materials are formed from layers of polycarbonate resins and foams bonded to a fibre substrate.

Utilised across the automotive, aviation and hospitality sectors, Ultrafabrics has recently begun to make inroads into fashion and accessories. In 2019 the brand partnered with New York-based accessory designer Mateo Mattia to create a bag, as well as Austrian fashion label Shohei for its spring/summer 2020 collection, shown at Helsinki Fashion Week – an event that has banned animal leather.

This week Ultrafabrics launched Volar Bio, its first fabric to incorporate bio-based materials alongside synthetic resins. To mark the collection’s release, Disegno met with A.R Swan and Kelly Buchanan, the brand’s director of marketing and director of product development respectively, to discuss the challenges for synthetic leather alternatives, as well as Ultrafabrics’ move towards developing more environmentally sustainable fabrics.

Disegno Let’s begin with terminology. There’s a huge amount of debate as to how we ought to discuss leather alternatives. Do you call them “vegan leathers” or can a leather only be an animal product? There seem to be good arguments on either side of the debate, but what is Ultrafabrics’ stance?

A.R. Swan It’s something we’re trying to address. We do not call ourselves “vegan leather” in print, but to help people in conversation, we sometimes reference it. So we might use “vegan leather” to give people a framework, especially when you’re dealing with accessories because everyone in that sector is looking for a “vegan leather”. But society has been through “faux leathers”, "synthetic leathers”, “leather alternatives”. Right now we would say we’re a high-performance fabric.

Kelly Buchanan There is an issue in that vinyls and PVCs have, historically, been known to contain plasticisers, phthalates and negative chemicals. A polyurethane such as ours doesn’t contain those chemicals, but we all tend to get thrown into the same bucket. Most people don’t know the difference between a vinyl and a polyurethane, or a silicone or any other type of fabric. We’ve decided to take a stance as a performance fabric and try to own that category.

Disegno Have you noticed changes in the market in how people respond to your materials?

A.R. I’ve been with the company five years and I’ve heard stories on the residential side of really big US companies who until recently were leather, leather, leather. It was all they were ever going to do and they wouldn’t even see you 10 years ago, whereas now they’re knocking on the door. You had airlines for whom first class was leather. Luxury automotive was leather. That’s not the case any more. I think there has been a sea change and I don’t know whether that’s a millennial thing, but we’re seeing people across markets who were either hesitant or resistant now knocking on our door.

Kelly Younger customers are very research-focused. They want to read about not only how their products are going to perform, but also how they’re going to impact their environment.

Disegno One of the reasons that alternatives to leather haven’t always caught on comes down to environmental factors. The alternatives are plastic-based, which obviously brings its own issues.

A.R. We can’t get away from the fact that we’re a petroleum-based product, but we do everything we can to recapture and recycle all the solvents used. We pass SCS Indoor Advantage Gold, which covers about 150 of the most dangerous chemicals – we do not use any of those. The durability of the material is a part of the sustainability story for us too. We had some customers switch from us to vinyl during the economic downturn of 2008, who were then having to replace the material after two years because the vinyl didn’t hold up. If you have something that lasts up 10 or 12 years [like Ultrafabrics], then you’re replacing it once in your lifetime, versus six times in your lifetime.

Disegno How does the decision to work with bio-based materials factor into this?

Kelly Our engineers have spent the last four or so years researching and working with a boutique resin supplier to find the perfect balance of how we can incorporate plant-based materials into our fabrics. So, [with Volar Bio] there’s a corn element which is blended in with a polycarbonate polyols, which is part of the resin formulation, and then there’s a wood pulp element built into the twill backcloth blend. Overall, we’re at 29 per cent bio-based content, which has been certified by the bio-preferred programme of the United States department of agriculture. We’re excited to have hit that mark.

Disegno What drove this development? Pressure from consumers?

A.R It’s a mixture. The writing was on the wall a little bit and we knew it was coming. This is the starting point and I can’t say it was the smoothest journey to get here. The more bio-based resins you put in, the more it changes the performance of the fabric, so the development was really about finding the right balance. The journey has literally just begun.