James&Co More Sustainable Fabrics
Eco Vegan Leather
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. Until recently when more synthetic leather options have been developing, the alternative leather fabric was traditional polyurethane (PU). PU is a plastic coating applied to a fabric base and it is the PU coating which gives the leather look on fabric because it wrinkles in the same way that real leather would do.
'Most faux leathers consist of a knitted polyester base with a PVC or polyurethane (PU) 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.'
However, PU is not eco-friendly because it contains the hazardous chemical DMF and is harmful to the environment and to workers in its manufacturing.
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 that 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 now published on Amazon For The Planet By 2030. Why We Need To Switch To Sustainable Vegan Leathers.
- 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 of our book, 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 some application of fossil fuels – mostly petroleum-based products. It is therefore not fully biodegradable and this puts it outside the scope of the circular economy.
- 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.
Bio-based PU and C02 based PU are not yet commercially available. Until this is the case, all more sustainable synthetic leathers will not be fully biodegradable as they will need the WBPU coating to create the leather look.
Cactus Vegan Leather
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 or chemical solvents, pesticides or herbicides. It is soft, durable and very high-quality for apparel.
As with WBPU, the fabric is not totally biodegradable. This is because a small percentage of its composition is actually WBPU as the final coating - because it needs to be used to create the leather look. There is as yet no ecological or bio based resin to substitute for a PU resin.
Vegea fabric is made in Italy. The word 'leather' does not appear in its title or any of its texts because legislation passed in Italy in 2020 forbids the use of the word 'leather' in any way to describe materials not derived from the remains of animals - including its use in conjunction with other terms such as eco-leather, vegan leather, faux leather and other synthetic fabrics. This is an important development for all stakeholders in the vegan leather market to watch as moves continue to push the legislation to other countries. Ultimately another word to describe synthetic leather look alternatives will be needed.
Vegea has a leather like appearance and texture. It is described as a vegan coated fabric or 'biomaterial'. A plant-based alternative material to synthetic oil-based non-renewable fossil-fuel based fabrics (PU and PVC) and animal-derived ones (real leather). The fabric is developed by a process for the valorization of wine waste: grape marc, that is composed by grape skins, stalks and seeds discarded during wine production.
Vegea is compliant with European regulations (REACH), solvent free animal friendly. The fabric is supple, breathable, highly resistent to abrasion.
As with cactus vegan leather, vegea has a coating of WBPU so it is not yet fully biodegradable.