It highlights a realisation that the longevity offered by well made leather goods is a top element in their sustainability story. Brands like Hermès have long realised the importance of longevity, and with it repair and eventual reconditioning if required. They choose panels carefully, normally from a single skin, to ensure they age in the same way and pick every sub-component to last. The designs recognise the long term likelihood of a repair being needed.

Longevity is leather’s strongest position
The recent newsletter from COTANCE, the European Tanners Association, discussed this aspect of the circular economy very well, in part quoting from the Leather Naturally White Paper on Sustainability. It is vital that the leather industry recognise that longevity is its strongest position and that circularity has vital circles in maintaining products, repairing them, reconditioning them and possibly repurposing them. Leather is not all about end of life.

In fact, at the last COTANCE event I attended in Brussels a few years ago, the opening panel was asked to name their favourite leather items – which included a sofa, a jacket and a bag. There were some poetic descriptions that went with them, and not one hint at the disposable society. These were all articles whose life cycles will involve a great many years.

The problem with current discussions on sustainability and rising temperatures is that we are being fed simple solutions. Some would have us believe that to eat less meat is enough to put everything right. Apart from being totally incorrect scientifically, it endangers the future by interfering with the thinking and education needed to actually solve the problems facing society and the planet.

One of the biggest issues is overconsumption. Since the start of the industrial revolution we have been pumping more and more man made carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, from burning irreplaceable fossil fuels. The industrial revolution brought wealth to the planet, but as people have got wealthier, they buy more and more. Many readers here will have made the annual trip to Shanghai and other parts of China in the 1990s as the country miraculously pulled its coastal citizens out of poverty. One year the craze was to buy air conditioners for their apartments, the next it was for motorcycles and so on year by year. And the more we buy, the more carbon dioxide we produce.

It is no resolution to accept a short life for products and create a “circular” end of life. Collection is too difficult – 10% for plastics if we are lucky – and a lot of energy, transport and chemicals will be needed to deal with it all and get it back to the consumer.

Classes on how to care for your items properly
So for quality goods and luxury goods leather is a perfect material, offering that long life that makes it suited to be kept or sold as “pre-loved”. For some struggling historic stores working in the second-hand area may be their saving, offering opportunities for experiential approaches. For example, in an article in the UK Daily Telegraph, Fanny Moizant, co-founder of Vestiaire Collective, said about a famous London store where they have a section:

“Selfridges has always been about creating a theatre and an experience around shopping, and those values have tied very well with what we do at Vestiaire Collective,” says Moizant. “We will run a programme of discussions and workshops about circular fashion [recycling garments rather than sending them to landfill] from our space, from classes on [everything from] how to care for your items properly to how to check the authenticity of your luxury bag.”

Given the horrors of the waste associated with fast fashion at almost every stage, and the enormous amounts of the plant’s resources rushing from virgin production to landfill, we need a major structural change, where leather – a renewable resource – is a perfect example.

It will be good to see families polishing their shoes every weekend again; it was once a familiar sight.

Mike Redwood
November 6, 2019
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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