Narrated by Lydia Lin, ZDHC East Asia Regional Director
H&M approached me and asked whether ZDHC can head up and coordinate with the “synthetic leather industry” for DMFa substitution, referring to the production of polyurethane (PU) coated textiles using Dimethyl formamide as a solvent. H&M said It’s very difficult for a single brand to tackle this industry issue as at that time more than 99% of the global PU-production used DMFa as solvent. H&M and other Brands spent a lot of individual efforts to talk to producers, but few seemed to understand how this should work for individual brand customers and few producers offered relevant practical support.
The Brands knew action was needed. Under the REACH legislation, DMFa is listed as a substance of very high concern (SVHC) for good reasons. And ZDHC listed DMFa in the ZDHC Research List, today’s ZDHC MRSL Candidate List in order to foster innovation and change within the industry.
Already in 2015 I reached out to the China Synthetic Leather Industry Association (CPASL) to seek for collaboration. ZDHC and CPASL could further join forces with the Chineses government and Association, who were aiming at VOC reduction as well. ZDHC and China Artificial & Synthetic Leather Committee of China Plastics Processing Industry Association (CPASL) initiated the first round table meeting between ZDHC Brands and synthetic leather manufacturer representatives in August 2015. A joint vision became a joint roadmap: DMFa should be paid close attention to!
H&M’s nudge led ZDHC to approaching DMFa in a more practical way! The idea was to tackle this issue by raising the attention of all stakeholders and channelling joint-efforts from the whole value chain including chemical companies, PU-producers, textile and footwear manufacturers, brands.
Firstly the roadblocks needed to be identified jointly and resources from all stakeholders used wisely to overcome them. The two key issue areas are
We started from tackling the technical issues. Several ZDHC brands worked together to summarise the technical issues they met in individual attempts to substitute DMFa. In May 2017, a total of 16 issues were documented and described (e.g. upper material cracking, failing of aging tests) in order to start focussing on jointly solving them.
ZDHC & CPASL organised the Technical Workshop in June 2017, which also included participants from the other stakeholder groups. The combined expertise was capable of coming up with solutions for 15 out of the 16 issues on concept level.
The ZDHC Task Team (Esprit, F&F, H&M, Inditex, Li-Ning, M&S) prioritised 6 issues and respective solutions discussed in the workshop and put them up for practical trials on site. A visit of a H&M footwear manufacturer was arranged, in order to get a better understanding of the footwear production process and its requirements and impact on the PU-material. After all, the DMFa substitution aimed not to compromise quality requirements or lead to process issues in the processes of manufacturing the final consumer goods, The material application discussion proved to be very valuable, which is why we decided to establish a communication platform for PU-producers and manufacturers using the material. They understood that working hand-in-hand will not only solve the issues, but put them in the spotlight of innovation leaders and sustainability champions.
After a few months of trials, significant progress was achieved and 5 of the 6 prioritised issues could be solved, the solution for the sixth one improved and put to further tests. In consequence, Brands gained trust in the new material and production processes and increased order placements respectively. Consumers would now experience products made from DMFa-free production. Mainly unknowingly.
ZDHC organised a second round of the collection of technical questions. Together with global and local chemical companies, DMFa-free PU-producers and experts from China, ZDHC coordinated to work on remaining questions and offered solutions and support to brands. ZDHC and CPASL also held two exchange meetings to encourage more chemical companies, DMFa-free PU factories and brands to engage in this joint DMFa substitution effort. According to CPASL, the production of water-based PU is estimated to have increased by 272% in 2018 compared to 2015, while the production of solvent-free PU is estimated to have increased by 420%. With these production volumes, the second issue area of costs could be put in a relation: There is a business case now for brands and producers to adapt DMFa-free solutions! There is an increasing demand for DMFs-free material from brands, and producers adapt to the new market.
ZDHC and CPASL held another exchange meeting supported by the local government in Lishui, China. The Lishui government took quick action after that meeting as they organised all the relevant PU enterprises to take steps towards a 20% DMF-based production-line reduction by 2019. CPASL and ZDHC visited the China Ministry of Ecology & Environment (MEE) to report the DMFa phase-out pilot in China. In May 2019, China MEE released an announcement to collect exposure and hazardous data of chemical substances, DMFa was one of these substances (here).
China MEE published a Technical Guide for “Emergency Emission Reduction Measures of Key Industries in Highly Polluted Weather", which identifies water-based and solvent-free PU factories as leading companies that can benefit from a positive policy. The CPASL plays an important role in communication and in connecting with the government by reporting on achievements and seeking political support.
After running the DMFa phase-out Pilot in China, many changes happened. More chemical companies increase investment and technology development. More synthetic leather companies are transferring from traditional PU production to DMFa-free processing.
Mr. Tian Jingyan, the Vice General Secretary of CPASL comments:
“After the collaboration with ZDHC, with the support from government, with the push from brands, and the investment and technology development effort from supply chain, compared with 2015, in 2019 water-based PU estimated to increase 600%, solvent-free PU estimated to increase 460%, China is preliminary set up a green supply chain in synthetic leather industry.”
ZDHC Brands play a key role in the DMFa phase-out and are highly acknowledged in the industry. They and their suppliers are leading the way of DMFa substitution. Some have already achieved a complete removal of DMFa from their production.
Changing an industry and adopting better production practices does not happen overnight, even if technical solutions seem to be within reach. The process of substituting DMFa, like many others, needs a mindshift. This story shows that collaborative efforts, open communication and stakeholder engagement can bring more lasting sustainable change to an industry than individual action could. In September 2020, I hosted a ZDHC InConnect digital meeting on the topic. More than 25 brands participated, of which a majority confirmed to already implement or plan to implement strategies on DMFa-substitution. From a consumer’s perspective, the change is mostly unnoted. For producers it is a reliable sign that brands’ commitments are put into action.
DMFa is a solvent used in plastics, rubber, and polyurethane (PU) coating. It has a strong smell in finished products. The harmful properties of these solvents make them the subject of regulatory action restricting their use and allowable concentrations in finished products. It is therefore listed in product restricted substances lists (P-RSL) and assessed in final product testing. It is a volatile organic compound with links to reproductive toxicological issues.
Connect with your suppliers and manufacturers and raise awareness for sourcing from and using DMFa-free material production. It is important to distinguish DMFa-free production from “DMFa-free products”, which may have been produced with DMFa technology but DMFa residuals have been removed from the final good with a lot of effort. Only DMFa-free production, the substitution of the substance in the production process is solving the risk associated with DMFa.
In case of further questions - have a look at the ChemSec Marketplace to find alternative solutions contact fellow Brands, textile and footwear manufacturers which committed to removing DMFa or contact ZDHC to join the collaborative approach to change the industry.
We can protect our beautiful planet from the impact of chemicals.