Why are Alternative Bio Materials Targeting Genuine Leather?

Tom Hogarth, Deputy Editor of International Leather Maker asks why new materials don’t champion their credentials over plastic.

Many in the leather industry are annoyed that companies and brands producing and championing new biomaterials are choosing to target genuine leather over other competitor materials and for good reason; it makes very little sense.

Leather is a natural, premium material prized by brands, retailers and OEMs in the fashion, automotive and furniture industries for its unique range of attributes. Although many are accepting a responsibility to take action over leather’s links to issues such as deforestation or animal welfare, leather is first and foremost an upcycled by-product from the food industry.

In 2022, the leather industry is more focused on sustainability than ever before and is taking the already circular nature of a natural, collagen-based biomaterial to new heights with more responsible chemistry, ethical sourcing, biodegradability, waste treatment and so much more.

No wonder then that so many are confused that sustainability-focused products like “lab-grown (or cultivated) leather” and so-called “vegan leather” are choosing to target leather in the market instead of obvious targets like synthetic materials, which are easy to criticise for the danger they pose to the environment and their fossil-derived origins. Surely, it’s these materials that should be targeted as they are the worst offenders.

British leatherworker Yusuf Osman, interviewed in the May/June issue of ILM, said: “I think people are being hugely misled because, actually, the vegan alternatives are not an alternative to leather, they’re an alternative to polyurethane (PU). They’re an alternative to 100% PU because they are, maybe, 50% PU. And that’s great but don’t come for the leather industry, go after the PU industry.”

Materials that reduce the amount of plastic needed in footwear and upholstery are a move in the right direction, and non-leather materials which use no fossil fuel derived ingredients are even better. It’s unsurprising that these materials are stealing headlines and catching fire on social media as they are developed and picked up by brands, but the choice to use that leverage over public perception to attack leather is confusing.

One reason could be found in leather’s competition with synthetic materials. From a purely business perspective, synthetics have won out and secured market share for the same reason that production moved to China, India and other countries with low manufacturing and labour costs; spend less money and make more money.

Leather is a premium material which finds itself front and centre of the most expensive and exclusive brands and products in the world. With materials such as “cactus leather” (the majority of which is synthetic), mushroom biomaterial or other lab-grown biomaterials, development and scale-up production are costly, particularly at a time when those companies are only beginning to build up commercial production and refine manufacturing processes. Perhaps this has led these companies to naturally compete with leather for a share of the markets and brands that are willing to invest and have the margins to do so.

It’s certainly not because these materials offer substantial benefits over leather from a performance standpoint. The oft-referenced FILK study set the record straight on this front and no sooner would someone advise a motorcyclist to choose synthetic protection than they would advise no protection at all.

And let’s not forget one important fact. If any material replaces genuine leather, it will not stop a single farmed animal from being culled for the food industry and, instead of being turned into leather, those hides and skins would most likely end up in landfills and emit CO2 as they decompose. Whereas, if the new generation of biomaterials were to replace synthetics, they could have a positive impact on the environment as society moves away from fossil-derived products.

Money talks in a post-pandemic world.

It’s also likely not because of the ethical or environmental benefits. Although these aspects are vital and will be at the centre of marketing for any material which can boast them, after years of pandemic-related financial insecurity and a post-Covid world which is proving more perilous than ever, there is little that will trump the bottom line in terms of priorities.

Covid-19’s repercussions on the global economy, continuing issues in countries such as China with zero-tolerance policy lockdowns and now the seeds of large-scale geopolitical unrest with the Russian invasion of Ukraine are all finding their way into financial results of the largest companies in the world as they justify their subsequently weakened revenues and profits.

So perhaps it has nothing at all to do with the environment, veganism or plastics. It’s simply, as many things are, about money. And the leather industry cannot do much about that. If that’s the case, then it will not come down to sustainability or ethical choices, it will simply come down to bang for your buck. Thankfully, leather has plenty of its own, and it’s going to be hard to dethrone a material which provides unbeatable performance in every category with a relatively low price to boot.

Tom Hogarth, Deputy Editor
International Leather Maker
This article was originally published in International Leather Maker