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All tanners have a little collection of interesting leather samples. Often, we use these to illustrate talks about leather to external bodies like schools and fashion and design students. It has always been interesting to note the excitement of everyone at handling leather made out of camel, horse, yak and the like.
Recently, I continued this practise with some design students and walked into hard questioning when I showed some small pieces of shark. Were they farmed? Surely catching sharks commercially was not allowed? My stories about the use of sharkskin in the toe areas of children’s shoes (great abrasion resistance) and in soccer boots (great for banana shots) got lost in the defence of a Danish aid project intended to help west African fishermen benefit from shark fishing after their traditional catch had been effectively wiped out by international factory fishing. I became uncertain about handing out some of the more exotic samples.
The deeper we get into the looming battle for the future of leather the more thoughtful we will have to become. The logic and economics of farming means that whatever the value of hides and skins, no one would keep livestock to make leather. Just as equally for as long as demand for meat and dairy products continues livestock will be kept even if the hides and skins have no value at all. This counts for our main sources of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. Indeed, with pigs we have to battle for the skins as many countries prefer to eat it with the meat.
While very strong, this by-product argument leaves us exposed if we are handing out samples of sting-ray, kangaroo and reptiles which clearly do not fit: so we need to be well prepared to discuss that tiny proportion of the industry which works with other types of raw material. Even something like ostrich does not reach the by-product status with feathers, meat and the skin probably having close to equal billing over time in terms of value.
Living with exceptions to the rules is not impossible, but the leather industry already has to deal with the damage to its image that comes from substandard tanneries in Fez, Kanpur and Hazaribagh. Add to that, explaining that we also have significant product areas that do not fit our by-product scenarios will become a big problem if we do not get ourselves very much better prepared.
Dr Mike Redwood
12th October 2017
Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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