Life works in mysterious ways, the sequel.
I don’t mean to brag, but I sure know how to pick my friends. I was deep into my materials research when I updated Alexis (my best friend from college) about my plan to launch Freja. That is precisely when she dropped the bomb that her family was one of the leading manufacturers of waterborne vegan ultrafiber leather in China.
Um, EXCUSE ME??
She seemed surprised that I didn’t know. But in my defense it’s not really the typical college buddy’s parent’s occupation.
After a few minutes of obligatory screaming and giddiness about how perfect of best friends and business partners we were meant to be, I started researching the material and other alternatives, and bombarding her with questions.
But first, let me backtrack and update you on our search up to that point.
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 diisocynates, both of which are derived from crude oil (petroleum). Next, the polyurethane is 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 on our radar, 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.
Alexis’s family specialized in manufacturing waterborne non-woven ultrafiber and ultrasuede. These are technical, advanced materials made with recycled microfiber and resin, using water as a solvent. And why does that make ultrafiber great?
- 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 also designed to last, waterproof, flame-retardant (hey, we want to be prepared for all situations), air-permeable, and most importantly, last for over ten years. That’s much better than the typical two year lifespan of DMF-based polyurethane.
In other words, water-based ultrafiber is 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, we believe this is the 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.
I asked her family’s sales manager to send me some samples of the material, and requested a few colors I had in mind for the bags. I received them the week after spring break.
I felt so legit opening up the package of material samples. I’d never designed a product before and never studied fashion (although my dad has always said I used to be quite the artist, if that means anything). I didn’t get any of the colors I requested (heads up: not getting what I expect is going to be a trend), but I was still so excited.
The ultrafiber was so supple, perfectly imitated the look and feel of leather, was scratch resistant (I really went at it), and completely exceeded my expectations. Plus, our sourcing agent had worked with them before and highly praised the factory for not only creating an eco-friendly, toxic-free material, but also for having good working conditions and highly regulated standards.
It was a priority for me to not only to work with the best ethical factories to handcraft the bags, but also to find a material that was sustainable and ethically made.
For the first time in a long time, everything was falling into place.
Spoiler alert: that was the last thing that went smoothly…but at least we started on a high note!
Feeling on top of the world Jenny