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Synthetic substitutes for leather “one of the biggest” polluters

Polymer producer Bayer MaterialSciences has developed a new system for the manufacture of polyurethane-coated fabrics saying that it will allow manufacturers of synthetic materials to clean up their production. The company has acknowledged that these synthetic substitutes, whose makers and sellers often specifically target the leather market, have one of the worst track-records among all types of coated fabric for causing health and environmental problems.

Bayer says 7 billion pairs of shoes, 2 billion handbags and 1 billion garments containing PU-coated fabrics are made around the world every year. The global leather industry has acknowledged that there are not enough hides and skins in the world to make all of these products from leather and that there is demand at lower price points for goods made from synthetic substitutes instead. Its objection is to the use of the word ‘leather’ to describe many of these products because this is unfair to the leather industry and to consumers. In its announcement about the new system, Insqin, the company carries on this practice, as does the name itself. Bayer has insisted that Insqin stands for “innovation in every square-inch”, but the name sounds like ‘in skin’.

However, for what leatherbiz believes is a first for a company with the global reach and reputation of Bayer MaterialSciences, there is an admission in the launch information that PU-coated fabrics are much more damaging to the environment than many manufacturers and finished product brands have claimed until now.

The company says its new system will offer a cleaner alternative to manufacturers because it will allow them to make PU-coated fabrics without the use of solvents, making the coatings water-borne instead. It claims that Insqin can reduce water consumption by up to 95% and energy consumption by up to 50% in the coating process.

Using figures from a Chinese industry association for PU-coated materials manufacturers, Bayer has said than more than 4 billion square-metres of synthetic materials imitating leather are produced around the world every year, with 90% of this total being produced in China.

“The social and environmental benefits of water-borne PU technology are of particular importance to PU leather (sic),” Bayer MaterialSciences said at the time of the launch, “which has been one of the largest sources of environmental and health hazards amongst all types of coated fabrics.”

It went on to say that there was “fast growing demand” for these fabrics and that global dependence on China as a source of them was putting “a heavy strain on local ecosystems”.

In its conclusions, Bayer MaterialSciences said: “Worker exposure to solvents needs to be addressed and pollution risks need to be minimised. Sustainability goals will be hard to achieve if the industry continues to use the mainstream solvent-based processes.”

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