Always check the context

The Redwood Blog
Published:  01 July, 2014
Mike Redwood

Last week in the U.S I was asked if I thought that carbon footprints would be important for the leather industry and I answered, in public at the annual ALCA meeting: "no". 

ILM readers will have noted that the clamour to have us all measure our personal footprints has died down. Calculations were added up by tapping into various publicly available calculations and basically anyone who did not live in a small terraced city house with solar panels on the roof was a failure. Owning a car, flying in an aeroplane, owning a big house, especially an old one, placed you in a position of carbon footprint wickedness from which you cannot recover.

The influential book Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart recommend a different approach. Michael Braungart suggests that it is better to focus on a good carbon footprint rather than diminishing the quality of life. Oak trees are his favourite example as they have a far larger footprint than they ought. They produce many more acorns and leaves than they need and every few years they go on a splurge to produce extra large volumes on a "just in case" basis. What is special is that their carbon footprint is a hundred per cent good, with all this extra organic matter providing nutrients for future life.

Essential to this concept, sometimes called the circular economy, is considering the end of life of an article when you design it. How long will it last and what will happen at the end of it? Re-use or recycling is good but only if the recycling involves the proper use of the elements involved. Much recycling of plastics puts chemicals into end uses where they are not adding value and are just postponing the trip to landfill. Better to remove them and use them for their proper purpose. Although I understand the economics were not too perfect at the time the tanners in the U.S city of Milwaukee used to extract chromium from leather shavings and what was left made good organic fertiliser or chicken feed. So from this we gained both the chemical nutrients and the organic ones. Now that we recognise that we have a planet with limited resources in which digging raw materials out of the ground, using them once and then throwing them into landfill is not acceptable, re-examining the extraction of chromium from process waste or finished articles needs to be re-examined.

Well-made articles, using properly formulated leathers made in tanneries such as those who are members of Leather Naturally! are quite the reverse of the disposable single use mentality. With animals having provided tanners with hides and skins since the beginning of time, quietly converting grass to protein, and leather articles being so long lasting if we can just correct issues of end life and biodegradability leather is a quite perfect material for the modern world.

Carbon footprints are a good way to measure improvements in manufacturing leathers year after year but are very complex when you try to use them to compare different materials. When the wildly inaccurate Livestock's Long Shadow suggested that cows are worse for the planet than cars they now admit that every possible element from land use changes to energy used to produce fertiliser for grain were charged against the poor cow while cars were just looked at with one if those "carbon toe-prints" that just took a generic figure for fossil fuel, with no figure for changing fields to roads or building the cars themselves. So while I understand our industry's enthusiasm to fight on a level playing field I think our customers know about cows and we need to help them understand that cows, and sheep, goat etc are generally good for the planet.

At the same time we need to work harder on doing better with our waste products and with what happens to leather articles at the end of their life. That done we have just about the best material in the world to promote with our heads held high. 

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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