Things tanners need to do to make great leather in 2016

Redwood Comment
Published:  05 January, 2016
Mike Redwood

1. Make it properly and do not cut corners with cheap chemicals and badly maintained machinery. We may class leather as a renewable resource, up to a point, but it is costly and valuable. Longevity really matters for the image of our product, and especially, when compared with competitive materials like plastics.

2. As a tanner, the environment is your responsibility; not your government's, UNIDO's or anyone else's whose name comes to mind. A good tannery treats the environment properly and has complete waste treatment and solid waste disposal. No sneaking partially treated wastewater into a river during the night. If in doubt, read Cradle-to-Cradle and make that your goal for the future.

3. Do not view every scratch and damage as something that needs to be covered in paint so it looks like plastic. Be creative and innovative. Remember two things: leather is natural and consumers understand that, even if some brands and retailers do not. If you work in a sector where leather gets quite heavily finished to meet standards, think hard about longevity and how the leather will age.

4. Do not sell your leather as a commodity or let the raw material that passes through your tannery be downgraded to just another material. All materials tend to slide towards commodity pricing over time but when it happens to leather it's the tanner’s fault. Think about what you are selling and its place in the market. In some sectors such as furniture leather has been over distributed, and as a result starts to lose its value and image with consumers.

5. Do not ‘greenwash’. Making claims about leather from an environmental point of view must be done with care. Involve your technical staff and be truthful. Is your "chrome-free" leather really chrome free? Have you used dyes containing chrome or drums with chromium residues? And are you sure your process is better anyway? It is hard to beat chromium environmentally for many end uses. Most claims for "organic leather" involve leather that has been treated with lime, sulphide and all sorts of other inorganic material. You are doing the industry a big dis-favour if you are being careless with your terminology.

6. Work with the designers and engineers at your customers so that they understand leather as a material and how to use it. With knowledge, they will design products that better accommodate the natural characteristics of your leather but still meet the consumers' expectations. It will also help you decide how to develop new leathers and commercialise the full range of grades.

7. Help your customers educate brands, retailers and consumers. Your material deserves it and you will see the benefit.

8. Understand that customer expectations change over time. While the ageing European and Japanese markets remain the consumer group buying a lot of leather products today, it is moving to the emerging nations, especially the East, getting younger, more urban and they consume media differently than any group before.

9. Start thinking about the end of life of products made of your leather. How long should they last? What should they look like as they age? Can they be repaired? What makes a consumer decide to stop using the product and how should it be disposed of? We make the leather and are the best ones to help at end of life. Let us do better than landfill.

10. Remember that sustainability is a very loosely defined term these days and CSR (Corporate and Social Responsibility) definitely requires you to look back at the animal welfare aspects of your raw material, how the workforce is treated and all manner of elements of the business you may have ignored in the past. Your customers will increasingly be thinking about all these issues and you need to be aware and comfortable with what is happening in every part of the chain in which you are involved.

11. Join Leather Naturally! The new annual subscription of just US$200 allows all sizes and parts of the industry to join in and support the industry. We still have many "core" members who have chosen to continue paying US$2,000 a year to help with our everyday funding and who get more involved in our thinking and management. You can take your choice as to which you join.

Mike Redwood

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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