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Material transformation

Author : Article by Nico Den Ouden, Global Sales and Marketing Director at ELeather

21 November 2019

The materials that we work with today are some of the best. We’ve taken the earth’s raw materials and used innovative technologies to make them stronger, smoother or shinier. It’s no wonder that we’ve managed to take materials through such a transformative journey, as our history together goes far back, to cavemen and dried animal hides.

Since then, we have always sought the best possible materials. In 2,800BC it was the silk we created in China, for clothing, canvas and sometimes even paper. In the first century AD, cotton and wool brought cheap, strong clothing to the masses. 

Materials truly began to transform in the 19th century in France. The world’s first synthetic fibres were invented (rayon, nylon and polyester). This was one of the first times that the world realised that materials aren’t limited to just the properties they have when they are discovered in their natural format. On an industrial scale, they could now be improved, strengthened, softened and engineered to be the right material for any need. 

The leather industry alone has gone through stages of transformation. The earliest records of leather being used by humans date back to 1300BC. Leather was no longer a by-product of hunting, but actually a material used in a range of ways. While the tanning process may have developed over time, today’s leather remains fairly unchanged. That’s not to say the industry hasn’t evolved – Kangaroo leather, or K-leather, has grown in popularity for products such as football boots, due to being softer and more flexible. In addition, the industry has taken some strides to become more sustainable, due to the introduction of engineered leather.

As mentioned above, the material industry has always been eager to transform the way it thinks and works. Changes in consumer attitudes have huge influence on this, and the material industry is currently trying to keep up with two consumers demands simultaneously: increased consumption, and improved sustainability. 

As the world’s population continues to grow, so too does global consumption. In almost every aspect of their lives, from travelling to buying new shoes, today’s consumers are demanding more and more. As a result, the use of natural resources is increasing, and our climate is changing. However, consumers are also increasingly aware of their impact on this planet, and therefore look for more sustainable options.

Ultimately, the goal must be to deliver what people want, and what the planet deserves: high quality products and services, developed and produced responsibly and sustainably. It’s time, yet again, for material change. 

This opens the debate of what the best possible material is for each aspect of a modern consumers’ life. While often natural materials are preferable, the depletion of our natural resources begs the question of whether they are sustainable enough. The need to depend less on these resources is what has brought around the current wave of material evolution. This suggests that while some resources, such as silk for clothing, will always remain popular, they cannot be depended on for a range of uses.

The synthetic materials first created in the 19th century revolutionised the material industry due to their cheap production process. However, the costs saved in this process are often reflected in the finished product. This is something that becomes more apparent in larger commercial or business scenarios. For example, many airlines opt for synthetic seating, which, particularly in first or business classes, fail to live up to the other luxurious aspects of the journey, such as the food, perks and service. 

When it comes to seating, another common option is fabric, which can be seen on many buses and trains. The issue with using fabric in these circumstances boils down to the high customer turnover rate of these transportation methods. Commuter trains travel up and down the country, transporting hundreds, if not thousands, of people every day. Fabric seats are hard to maintain and difficult to clean, which can compromise the travel experience of dozens of travellers in a single day.

Over time, we’ve discovered the benefits and drawbacks of a range of materials. For those in the industry, this offers a great advantage: they can now innovate, and engineer new materials that offer the durability, style and luxury we see in some materials, while being sustainable and easy to maintain and clean.

One such material offering all of these benefits is engineered leather. It uses leather fibre, giving it not only the same look and feel as leather, but also the quality and comfort that comes from a raw natural material. However, it’s more sustainable than traditional leather as it utilises unused leather, diverting it from the landfill to create a new material. The patented clean technology manufacturing process avoids using adhesives harmful to the environment, and also uses significantly less water compared to other materials, recycling 95% of any water it does use. 

Certain alternatives that have been classed as more responsible, or ‘vegan’, are often produced using mainly synthetics and microfibres generally made of plastic, which are far from being biodegradable. This hampers their environmentally responsible credentials. Engineered leather, however allows us to give new life to a by-product that already exists and by doing so allows for greater design possibilities and higher performance.

The relationship between humans and materials goes back thousands of years and proves that our planet offers us a fantastic range of resources. However, as global consumption rises, humans increasingly need to use their innovative minds to create the best possible materials with minimal impact on the environment. What started in 19th century France has evolved, into an industry where we can create new materials that are strong, durable and hygienic, benefitting brands, consumers and the planet.

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