Our factory packing up our ultrafiber for the two hour drive to our factory.
As a company that wants to do what’s best for workers and the environment, we invested a lot of time and energy into looking for the perfect material.
Polyurethane, or PU, is the most commonly used substitute for leather. It’s incredibly versatile, can be made into various colors and textures, and although more expensive than PVC, is still relatively affordable to manufacture. But while polyurethane is animal-free, it is a problematic textile.
Polyurethane is made by reacting polyols with disocynates, both of which are derived from crude oil (petroleum). The polyurethane is then painted onto a fabric backing. But to turn the polyurethane into a liquid “paint,” a solvent must be used. The most common solvent used today is DMF, a highly toxic chemical. The process also requires copious amounts of water and energy.
We wanted to find a better option, while not sacrificing aesthetic and performance expectations.
Silicone leather (made from silica and 100% renewable) was also a top choice, but it ended up being too soft and flimsy to be fit for bags. Fruit leathers like pineapple and orange leather were also interesting, but were severely limited in appearance and texture. Further research also revealed that these leathers were often made with a mix of polyurethane anyways, for structure and stability. The newer bio-leathers like mushroom and wine leather were still in the development stage, and cost prohibitive.
Our factory specializes in manufacturing waterborne non-woven ultrafiber and ultrasuede. These are premium, advanced materials made with recycled microfiber and resin, using water (instead of DMF) as a solvent. And why does that make ultrafiber great for handbags?
It eliminates the use of the highly toxic chemical DMF.
Compared to the traditional polyurethane making process, the water-based process uses 95% less water and 55% less energy consumption.
Although microfiber is a plastic-based product, we’re using microfiber made from recycled plastics to give it a second life.
Water-based polyurethane is most often used where durability and performance are a priority (like sporting goods and airplane seats). It’s waterproof, air-permeable, and most importantly, last for over ten years. That’s much better than the typical two year lifespan of DMF-based polyurhethane.
It’s OEKO-TEX certified, which means it’s completely free from over 100 harmful chemicals, and safe for human use.
- Bonus fun fact: our factory also supplies ultrafiber to luxury brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton for the linings of their bags, and BMW for their car seats. Kevin, our materials manager, says most brands charge $800+ for items made using ultrafiber!
In other words, water-based ultrafiber is pretty revolutionary. It combines the versatility of polyurethane with a fraction of the environmental impact. It’s expensive, but not unreasonably so (approximately the same price as animal leather per yard).
We’re always looking for more environmentally friendly materials and are waiting impatiently for the current options to become more widely available, but until then, this is our best overall choice. And as luck would have it, my best friend’s family is one of the few manufacturers in the world that makes this material.