Only as strong as your weakest link

The Redwood blog
Published:  07 January, 2014

For the past fifty years most tanners have taken the approach that hides and skins are by-products or waste products of the livestock industry. Being around 98% of the 24 billion square feet of leather made annually everything else should be ignored. This has bearing on the leather industry's attitude to animal husbandry and farming methods throughout the world. 

It relates to the way we respond to complaints about animal welfare and it impacts on whether any environmental issues related to livestock should be passed forward onto the leather made from the skins.

With so many of these issues now being pushed into the limelight we need to have a response ready. Continually saying that "they have nothing to do with us because we are just a by-product" and noting that "demand for leather cannot impact the numbers of cattle being bred" is starting to wear thin.

A visit to Cuir a Paris goes some way to making the point. A very large number of the stands are showing material, which is clearly not a by-product of the meat and dairy industries. Huge numbers of crocodiles, alligators, ostriches and also fur fill the stands in the fastest growing leather fair in the world. In Paris the target audience of the exhibitors involves a heavy concentration of the top luxury brands who are not just important to the leather trade but are increasingly part of it. All use reptile and ostrich and many now also use fur, where they have now satisfied themselves about the propriety of the supply chains they have established. While fur rarely shows at other major leather fairs reptiles and other skins will be shown as long as the tanners can show they are CITES compliant.

Possum, coyote and shearling

Even with fur there are different levels to be considered. While major brands using traditional furs work with farms where, we are told, their inspections have met their requirements for animal welfare other brands are using New Zealand possum, which the New Zealand government wishes to eradicate, and some are using hunted coyote which is also classed as a pest in parts of the world. Closer to everyday leather making even shearling used in UGG boots has recently come under quite a severe attack. (Leather Naturally! supports UGG boots stance)

At the UNIDO Leather Panel in Shanghai two years ago one of the African delegates made the point that hides and skins were a very important financial element for the rural farmer. In Ethiopia thirty years ago over 70% of the sheepskins were graded 1-3 in pickle. Today that figure has dropped below 20% and continues to decline. Intervention by Pittards who own a large tannery there has shown that the proper treatment of the animal can both return the grading to the original high figure and offer the farmer 2kgs more meat per animal at slaughter. Does it not make sense for the tanner to get involved in husbandry to improve the raw material to the mutual benefit of the farmer and the tanner?

All this makes the boundary line between the obvious by-product and the very important co-product less distinct. It is not an easy discussion but it is one that tanners need to consider seriously.

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

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