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A few weeks ago, I ran a three-day course on branding in the leather industry at Northampton University. During the course, a couple of colleagues from some big brands, one leather goods and one footwear, were called in to talk to the students. In quite separate presentations on different days, both made the point that while they understood the science and technology that supports chromium as a first-rate tanning method they thought there was already too much momentum behind the chrome-free movement for it to be stopped.
This did not involve any argument or position, nor liking or support for those brands specifically making a play for chrome-free as a supposed “environmental” move. As buyers looking at finding annual volumes of leather around the 100 million square feet they do no more than remain aware of the pressures that are likely to impact their purchasing.
The unanimous view that so many consumers, designers, retailers and others were now persuaded that chrome tanned leather is a “bad thing” suggests that all current attempts by the leather industry to rehabilitate chrome by carefully explaining the science are likely to fail. Articles laid out on the ICT web site and “definitive” research studies at the Northampton University leather school are too little too late.
If it is true that we are seeing the slow and inevitable death of chromium in the leather industry we must accept that it has itself been the one administering the poison. In the 1990s many tanners supported a few chemical companies in proclaiming how “toxic” and dreadful chromium was. We were told car seats could convert to Cr VI in situ if they sat in sunlight. No one said that this was pretty improbable and that anyway car owners would have to start eating the seat before any harm would be done, as Cr VI is only really dangerous when ingested.
The days of objective analysis live in the past.
Most tanners were pressured to introduce a chrome-free line and stand after stand promoted them at trade fairs. Many of the top tanners were wary of this on the grounds that promoting a tiny production of chrome-free was inevitably damaging the image of their main chromium production. Often chrome-free never passed 5% of production since beyond the automobile sector performance characteristics were not very good.
Spending the best part of two decades promoting leather without chromium, but thinking it might be an error, cannot be reversed by a flurry of activity now. We live in a very intolerant and polarised world today. Whether you are looking at politics, climate change or animal rights most people have set views which are very hard to challenge. The workings of the Internet mean that the news and information which “finds” consumers are carefully filtered to reinforce those opinions. The days of objective analysis live in the past.
More than likely we do have to accept the judgment that the pendulum has swung, never to return. Chromium tanning is in permanent decline.
19th July 2017
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