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Emerging global trends in leather and fashion

by Sjaak Grijsen

As the global population boom, there are inevitable implications on livestock. Demand for food and shelter have grown manifold resulting in an alarming scarcity of land meant for rearing animals, says Satyadeep Chatterjee.

Trends have to be predicted taking into consideration possible drastic changes. Fashion consumers are becoming more conscious of the environment. They prefer eco-friendly material, conservative use of resources, reduced emission of pollutants, greater social commitment and fair treatment of employees in production facilities.

The presence of a large number of players in the sector has intensified the competition to garner a larger chunk of the market share of this lucrative industry. On the demand front, consumers are rapidly aligning towards new designs and innovative leather offerings to ensure they are in sync with changing fashion trends. Another factor that needs to be taken into account is the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) economies. Their dominant position in the labour-intensive textile and leather industries makes it difficult for other countries to match them.

Owing to high demand, the leather goods industry is on a growth spree. Forecasts are, this vertical will grow at a CAGR of 3.4 percent over the next five years and will touch US$ 91.2 billion by 2018.

The softest, most luxurious leather comes from the skin of newborn or even unborn calves. Sourcing this leather is unethical. Though it is a very durable and flexible material, the process of tanning leather is incredibly toxic. Most of it is chrome tanned, which results in carcinogenic chromium (VI) being pumped into the water table.

In many countries, quality standards are very high. Leather manufactures are trying to produce more sustainable products by prohibiting harmful dyes and chemicals. Unfortunately, only a few customers are willing to pay more for these ‘greener’ products. One pioneer of this trend is renowned fashion designer, Stella McCartney, who is using eco-friendly material for her shoes and handbags.

Innovation in luggage and leather goods with new technologies and design is the major driving force for the industry. LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA, Coach, Inc., Kering SA, Prada S.p.A, and Hermes International SCA are some of the major manufacturers of the luggage and leather goods industry.

Professors at the University of Delaware chemical department are developing artificial eco-leather that can be used to make shoes, handbags and other fashion accessories. Richard Wool, director of University of Delaware, said at the 17th Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference in Bethesda, “We are basically taking aerospace engineering of highly complex materials and using it to make wearable items that offer a much better design for consumers, than the original design from an animal would be. And it is all green and sustainable.”

The conference, which regularly attracts scientific leaders from around the world, is sponsored by the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute.

The Affordable Composites from Renewable Sources programme, headed by Wool, began developing what he calls “eco-leather” four years ago in collaboration with Huantian Cao, an associate professor in the university’s fashion and apparel studies department. The researchers hope their efforts will lead to the development of mass-produced apparel and footwear from renewable resources.

Eco-leather is made with natural fibres such as flax or cotton mixed with palm, corn, soybean and other plant oils that are laminated together in layers to create something that looks and feels as if it came from an animal. It is breathable. It does not resemble plastic. Unlike real leather, which requires the toxic tanning process, materials in eco-leather are sustainable and produce a low carbon footprint. On the flip side, the product is stiff, it is difficult to work with and the stitching breaks. So we cannot yet use techniques available to make shoes with this material. But the future holds promise.

Interest in the eco-leather material is growing. Brands like Nike, Puma and Adidas have requested samples so that they can experiment with this new product.

If we can use plants to make bio-based material that replaces leather — which has environmental and social concerns surrounding it — the substitute could be worth the wait.

Designers love the concept of an alternative because it gives them a whole element of design that they did not have before when they were trying to work with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) as artificial leather.

We are finally on the verge of achieving a new dimension in the leather technological strata. The alternative will also enable us to stop animal slaughter for leather and conform more with the environment.

About the author

Satyadeep Chatterjee works as a faculty in the department of Fashion Leather and Accessories Design at Footwear Design and Development Institute.

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