By Mike Redwood, Leather Naturally
Mike Redwood, spokesperson for LeatherNaturally shares valuable information with Total Shoe Concept with regards to the sustainability of leather. Must read!
Leather is a forever item
If there is one thing that is clear about leather it is that it is not suited for fast fashion. Even the simplest maker of leather wallets knows that customers expect them to last ten years, and makers of quality leather bags are now rechecking where and how they incorporate zips to be sure they can be replaced if needed.
For that is one thing you will note – in most leather articles it is not the leather which wears out but the stitching, the zips or the other accessories. Many luxury handbag companies talk about their articles being passed through the generations. Aeroplane and automobile seating is normally designed to last at least ten years and after that it is rarely at the end of life, only looking a bit; something which in an old fireside chair can be a positive characteristic for many decades.
Longevity and an ability to be repaired are the first characteristics of sustainability that really count. If consumers keep articles an extra year or two rather than dipping back into the planet’s resources the environmental savings are enormous. When Walter Stahel proposed his loop, or circular, economy in 1976 it was less about end of life and more about longevity and repair where he argued the real planetary gain is to made. What is more a repairing society can employ up to four per cent of a nation’s workforce in craftsmanship jobs that are not easily replaced by robots.
Compared to most competitive materials leather not only lasts a great deal longer but when it needs to be replaced it does not call on fossil fuels or other non-renewable resource. As long as we have a society that makes use of dairy products and eats meat we will have hides and skins to make leather.
Currently there is heavy pressure coming from animal rights and some aggressive vegan organisations who argue that keeping livestock is wrong. I oppose these arguments strongly as I believe there is a great deal of evidence that livestock is very important to society today as it has been for thousands of years. Most of the pseudo scientific arguments relating to methane production and land use have not withstood scrutiny and all ignore the important role livestock play in maintaining the quality of long term grassland to enable it to sequester carbon dioxide in huge quantities.
No one keeps the main raw material sources – bovine, sheep, goat and pigs – for their hides and skins but I am not comfortable that we suggest tanning is some form of waste disposal process. I like the term non-determining co-product: a product for which a change in demand does not affect the production volume of the co-producing activity is called a dependent co-product or a non-determining co-product. This is clearer than simply calling it a by-product but emphasises the point that at no stage is it economic to keep such animals for leather making alone.
Cows are good for the planet
At the same time I do believe that as an industry we need to support meat eating, and the keeping of livestock. Being close to the farming and livestock side has always been important for tanners and essentially a happy cow generally means a good quality hide. In the UK until the 1980s we had a Hide Improvement Society and most larger tanners had staff who liaised with farmers and abattoirs in order to look at ways in which hide quality could be improved. Cows are good for the planet and we should celebrate being part of the industry and not skulk behind unwanted by-product status.
Thus leather starts with a renewable natural material with wonderful properties that allow it to serve many industries and last a very long time. To make leather in the past we were very much a biotechnology business, using leaves and fruit for tanning, dung and urine for the preparation of the hide, egg yoke for softening, and blood and egg white in the finishing, amongst many other materials. Putrefying hides and skins needed washing and the hair was often removed by allowing the hair roots to be eaten by bacteria while the hide hung in the river. So it was not surprising that the industry attracted vermin and had an unpleasant smell from the earliest times, and that this resulted in most cities locating tanneries in out of the way, down wind places. In the same way as dog dung was replaced 120 years ago by pancreatic enzymatic bating material the leather industry has transformed itself over the last few decades. Modern tanneries make an engineered product in a controlled environment where water, energy and chemical use is highly controlled all having been vastly reduced. Recycling and comprehensive waste management treatment is the norm and the industry has moved, with a tiny number of exceptions which we hope will soon be resolved, from a noxious industry as it was considered in the 19th century into a precision conditioning process of which society can be proud.
The carbon footprint of the tanning process is quite low, and we should note that leather maintenance in life usually needs only a damp cloth while regularly dry cleaning a textile can constitute forty per cent of its lifetime carbon footprint.
If you add to this the fact that making leather products is labour intensive and has provided millions of jobs around the world which have pulled people out of poverty – a major target of the Brundtland definition of sustainability – then leather does tick the boxes of a truly sustainable material. One to be proud of.
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