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BASF’s Haptex Leather: Synthetic Yet Sustainable

Leather is a highly sought-after commodity in fashion, but all too often its production is associated with negatives like greenhouse gas emissions. With a growing consumer demand for sustainable alternatives, an eco-friendly solution is a must.

Chemical producer BASF is answering the call in developing Haptex, a synthetic polyurethane (PU) solution that doesn’t use any organic solvent or plasticizer in the production process, enabling it to be an environmentally friendly substitute to traditional synthetic leather. Haptex is used to produce the middle layer of synthetic leather for fashion items such as jackets, vests, shoes, skirts, belts, caps, hats and bags, as well as home furniture.

Both apparel and footwear brands alike can benefit from Haptex’s chemical properties. The synthetic leather’s high peeling strength, flexing and abrasion resistance is optimal for athletic footwear, and it can be embossed—stamped using heat or heavy pressure to produce a pattern—making it ideal for dress shoes and handbags. Additionally, Haptex has anti-yellowing capabilities which can benefit the long-term quality of white shoes, and overall is structured with a soft hand feel that increases comfort for any garment.

As part of its environmental goals, BASF wants to eliminate toxicity concerns from the equation.

Currently, both major types of synthetic leather, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and solvent-based PU have properties that can make them toxic in doses—PVC releases dioxins, which are potentially dangerous in confined spaces and especially dangerous if heated, while PU synthetic leather contains the toxic-solvent liquid dimethylformamide (DMF).

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Although 99 percent of DMF can be recycled during production, there is still 1 percent outstanding when the process is complete. This means that thousands of metric tons of DMF could enter the atmosphere (and the final leather products) every year, which could potentially induce health risks to both workers and synthetic leather consumers.

That’s why during leather production, many manufacturers remove DMF by heating and water washing. But both processes can consume an enormous amount of energy, and discharge polluted gas and waste water, essentially mitigating potential environmental benefits. With no organic solvent or adhesive needed, the Haptex production process skips the “wet” process of water washing, instead leveraging a “dry” process using a foaming agent.

In June 2020, BASF invited product testing and certification company Intertek to run a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) study on Haptex leather and its manufacturing process, comparing it to both the water-based and solvent-based synthetic leather processes.

The figures shown in the LCA report demonstrated that the Haptex “non-solvent” solution showed superior performance from a sustainability perspective. Not only is Haptex’s process DMF-free, it also reduced carbon footprint, and energy and water consumption.

For instance, Haptex was proven to produce 52 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional synthetic leather, with more than a 20 percent cut in energy consumption when using one kilogram of chemicals for synthetic leather production. The process phases out water usage, reducing it by 30 percent compared to usual solvent-based PU production methods.

But the BASF team is not done innovating in the materials space.

Seeing the needs from its partner brands for more eco-friendly products, the chemical company’s scientists have been working on bio-based Haptex solutions made from non-food based vegetable oil with the BASF Biomass balance approach, which is designed to reduce CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) in chemical production.

Via the Biomass balance approach, BASF traditionally produces chemical products with fossil feedstock in efficient production chains. By using alternative raw materials of both recycled and renewable feedstock, the company aims to manufacture the same products more sustainably. In the end, plastic and organic waste is recycled, while fossil resources can remain in the ground.

Learn more about BASF’s Haptex synthetic leather solution here.