Mike Redwood

Columnist


As an industry, we routinely talk about livestock, water and urbanisation, but rarely at the same time. Each has a big impact on the leather industry in quite different ways. Three months of heavy rain in the UK have shown how these areas interweave and should no longer be considered in isolation.

Water

I have kept a rain gauge in my garden for 30 years and the recent rains are not exceptional, but the ferocity of each storm and the amount of water being held in the air both are. We use hot air to dry leather because it can hold much more moisture than cold air. At 20°C, 17.3g/m3 is the maximum capacity for moisture in the air, but at 50°C it is a massive 83g/m3. The capacity doubles between 10°C and 20°C, and the amount held will naturally move to the maximum if the air is over wet countryside such as tropical forests, or a saturated landscape. In the UK, temperatures in 2023 were considerably above average and two months of above normal rainfalls were followed by a third month with much higher levels. Falling on already saturated ground, flooding was inevitable.

Since the last great Ice Age largely settled the nature of our landscape, excess rainwater has overflowed onto low level land alongside rivers. Designated as floodplains, it could settle and run off into the rivers as their levels fell or be absorbed into the subterranean aquifers. Typical of 20th century human behaviour, societies have chosen to use powerful machinery to canalise the rivers rushing the rainwater to the sea while building on the floodplains and the riverbanks. These new levels and types of precipitation overwhelm this setup and it is too expensive to defend the built environment from them.

Livestock

To survive constant floods and droughts, the best solution has always been long term grassland, grazed by livestock, with care not to overgraze. When floods come, the animals are moved to higher ground or the farmyard. The development of chemical fertilisers and the demand for efficiency destroyed the mixed farming system where farmers used animal manure to fertilise their own crops. Farmland on the floodplains began to be used for crops, long term grassland ploughed for crops and livestock pushed to marginal land (where they can thrive but may overgraze hilltops which can increase downstream flooding) and to intensive systems.

Constant flooding of arable land is now leading to a rethink. On more and more land, it would be better to revert to livestock farming on long term grassland, effectively creating a regenerative approach that fits better with biodiversity, food production, the natural environment and necessary climate change mitigation.

Cities

In 2013, the geographer Danny Dorling put forward his careful analysis to contradict the panicky assumptions of authors like Stephen Emmott that world population would race past 10 billion. He showed that 10 billion was a maximum after which world population would quite steadily decline back to seven billion or less, and that a peak of around nine billion was more likely. His figures are now largely accepted by the UN and others.

Simultaneously, he looked at the way urbanisation was evolving and found that there was generally a natural balance at around 32 million for city size, as long as a city is loosely classed to include its hinterland, with fields and pasture within it. Greater Tokyo was given as a favoured example, as a core city with a perfectly integrated hinterland, aided by one of the world’s best railway systems. A population of nine billion implies roughly 280 of these city areas around the world.

This is quite a crude approach and, since then, we have seen some places in China chasing much larger megacities, but it is still a useful working figure for analysis. A balance appears to have been found as the rate of urbanisation has started to slow and is slowing GDP growth, which accelerated when urbanisation was at its peak.

Cities in many parts of the world have been greatly impacted by the pandemic. They have become younger as families with children left in search of more space. This is now creating demand for better public transport so that they can return to the office two or three days a week. Adjustments are also overdue for those whose work cannot be done from home, offering better economic incentives, social recognition and an ability to find affordable housing closer to work along with clean water and sanitation.

Supply chains also need a major rethink with the countryside around cities used for local production of essential goods, such as meat, milk, vegetables, fruit and other items. So, using the landscape around the built environment for livestock now makes much greater sense and fits the bigger picture as we understand the realities of population growth, climate mitigation and the increased need for circular thinking.

Although leather is not a commodity and most forms of leathermaking are specialised and based on particular raw materials, we should expect all 280 of these city regions to have a tanning capacity and a variety of leather using businesses. Given how important leather is in the new sustainable materials world, this looks inevitable.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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