It is an oversimplification to define Charles Booth by three things, but for a person with an incredible tally, these three stand out. In terms of progress, how would you rate them?

  • The discovery and commercialisation of chrome tanning (it is a long story but without his support for innovation, that meeting in Racky’s restaurant that got Schultz working on leather could never have happened)
  • The introduction of the universal Old Age Pension in the UK
  • The building of the Port of Manaus in Brazil.

Not long ago this would have seemed a foolish question. All three moved society “towards an improved or more advanced condition” as the saying goes. But as we see more extinction events coinciding with the reversal of the global advances of the past 30 years, questions are being asked about the meaning of progress.

One key point made by Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress was that every innovation has consequences, highlighting both farming and the taming of fire as two of the biggest in terms of giving power to humans over the planet.

Over a century has passed since the founder and CEO of the Booth Group made his mark on the world. Having a huge pontoon built in Glasgow and pulled by his own ship across the Atlantic and 900 miles up the Amazon so that the port of Manaus could function all year was seen as real progress at the time.

Old age pension

The old age pension seems an obvious winner. It recognised the difficulty ordinary working people had in retirement, falling quickly into poverty, and taking their families with them. Booth spent a couple of decades fighting for this. The cost was simply calculated as the average lifespan was only one year beyond retirement age.

Today, life expectancy has jumped up dramatically, with many governments left offering high payments starting at very young ages, while others struggle to fund schemes that will involve many years of payments. A look at recent years in France highlights the problem.

How about chrome tanning? It totally transformed the leather industry. The tannery Booth built in Philadelphia to make chrome-tanned kidskins was one of the biggest ever built. The First World War demonstrated that chromium leathers reduced trench foot in the constant wet conditions. New styles of thin, strong leather became familiar and factories measured production time in weeks rather than months, continuously improving as drums and machinery were updated.

Yet, for all its good points, chromium is problematic in the wrong hands with some unwilling to properly handle their solid and liquid wastes. In the search for efficiency, perhaps better defined as reduced cost, the outcome was that recognised ways of recycling fleshings, hair, split trimmings and other wastes into useful products were quietly forgotten and slipped from the mentality of tanners.

Despite all its good properties, and the unfairness of the arguments used, chrome tanning became a symbol of much that was bad about leather. It will steadily fade away and the leather industry will spend many years cleaning up after it, physically and otherwise.

Moving forward

We should remember that, when humans first began making irreversible changes, leather was involved. Sharp stones were used to clean the flesh from hides and skins to provide the coverings that allowed travel and survival in different climates. Tents, boats, ropes and carrying vessels freed communities to change their living conditions and in almost every subsequent societal advancement until recent times leather has played a key, if not a central role.

Given the facts that we now understand about materials, diets, biodiversity and climate change the leather industry and its wide supply chain are clearly part of the solution. Leather alternates and intensive monocultural farming excluding animals do not stand up well when the science is understood and honestly disseminated.

Leather is a supreme material, and we should not stop trying to advance and improve all aspects of leather and its manufacture. Yet, at the same time, we need to carefully consider all the consequences. The world was certain that plastics were a wonderful invention but even a small amount of thought from the start might have limited all the many problems now arising – microplastics in the sea and air, limited useful life, dependence on fossil fuels, and almost limitless centuries before degrading. Plastics are important, but not so important as to destroy our future based on over-marketing and lobbying.

Given that many of our old tanning methods still work perfectly today, we have no need to rush. We should still move forward determinedly but there is no wisdom in going too fast and not searching for unexpected consequences in our actions.

Mike Redwood

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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