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Artificial leather production: Substitution of hazardous chemicals

Overview

Field of action

Project partner

 

 

 




Region

Project duration

Chemical and environmental management
Product and raw material innovation

ZDHC (in charge of the following brands Esprit, H&M, Inditex, M&S, Tesco, Li Ning)
Chemical manufacturers
Producers of artificial leather
Local authorities
Chinese association of artificial leather producers
Research institutes

China

Since 2017

Background

The harmful substance dimethylformamide (DMF) is still used as a solvent in the production of artificial leather. The use of DMF is particularly important in China, where about 75 percent of the world's artificial leather production takes place. For a long time, there was no alternative available on a large scale that would not impair the quality and appearance of the end product.

The aim of the ZDHC Foundation is to ban hazardous chemicals from the value chain of textiles, leather and footwear. This objective can only be achieved with all supply chain partners. That is why ZDHC has brought together all those involved in artificial leather production. Brand companies and individual manufacturers, manufacturers of artificial leather products and materials, chemical companies, local authorities, research institutions and associations are now working together to reduce the use of DMF in China. With visible success: Technical challenges in DFM substitution were solved together. The foundation has already achieved around a quarter of the artificial leather production in China with its project. The aim now is to extend the programme to other manufacturers and to increase the availability of DMF-free alternatives.

DMF - a danger to health

Artificial leather usually consists of a fabric with a polyurethane coating. In the production of this material, the harmful solvent dimethylformamide (DMF) is still used extensively.

The application is particularly significant in China, where about 75 percent of the world's artificial leather production takes place. Against this background, the Chinese government has adopted the goal of reducing the use of the solvent by 25 percent between 2016 and 2020.

Together for DMF-free production

The ZDHC Foundation has addressed this problem. ZDHC stands for "Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals". Since 2011, the foundation has been working with its own program to eliminate environmentally and health damaging chemicals from the value chain of textiles, leather and shoes. More than 110 members, including signatory brands, value creation and cooperation partners, have so far joined the association. The foundation aims to help reduce the use of DMF in artificial leather production and make DMF-free alternatives and innovations available to the market. To this end, it has brought member companies together with manufacturers of artificial leather end products and materials, chemical companies, local authorities, research institutions and associations.

In so-called industrial workshops, the partners worked out different alternatives for DMF and improved them both technically and functionally. The focus was also on the quality of the end product and the costs of replacing DMF, as the solutions had to be scalable. The cooperation also ensures that the alternative solutions reach the market faster and that the growing demand for healthier products can be better met. After the first project phase, the activities are now being extended to other manufacturers.

Innovative solutions for safe artificial leather production

The preliminary result of the project: The participants have developed a total of 15 different, health and ecologically harmless solutions for various technical problems - for example, for the crease problems in boot production. In doing so, the proportion of water-based polyurethane has risen by 120 percent compared with 2015.

This has led to a significant increase in DMF-free products on the market. Since the beginning of 2018, ZDHC has also been working with so-called production clusters in artificial leather production to distribute DMF substitutes. So far, about 25 percent of the artificial leather producers in China are involved in the project.

Solvent application and testing. © Stichting ZDHC Foundation.
Industrial workshop with presentation of DMF-free product solutions. © Stichting ZDHC Foundation.

Good for health, good for business

The DMF substitutes are not only progress in health protection. They offer artificial leather producers even more advantages. They have the opportunity to adapt early to the DMF regulations of the Chinese government and the associated changes in production. If the companies then jointly optimise the technical quality requirements, they will also save costs and time. The developed solutions are also quickly available and can be effectively scaled. Another added value of the project is that the member companies work closely with their supply chain partners, thus gaining additional insight into local production conditions.

With a larger share of DMF-free and more environmentally friendly products in their portfolio, companies can also meet the growing demand for environmentally friendly clothing. This also offers the opportunity to demonstrate their own innovative strength and has a positive impact on their reputation.

Experiences and recommendations

  • The development of substitutes for DMF is associated with a variety of technical challenges. It is therefore important to pool expertise.
  • This requires close cooperation between manufacturers and companies as well as between companies themselves.
  • The entire supply chain must be involved in this process - from the resin and polyurethane manufacturers to the end customer.

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