Around the world, fashion education varies enormously with regional and national views often intermingled with powerfully presented views of influential staff. Responding to what I consider misguided articles about leather and alternates both off and online, I have often found that the counter comments have come from staff employed in teaching design and fashion.

Some colleges work harder than others to offer a balanced view with the idea that, if the students are given the facts objectively, they will be better able to decide about the integrity of the materials they want to work with. 

Over the last 15 years, I have had a limited opportunity to watch this as a visitor at the University of Northampton where the integration of leather and fashion is naturally greater than normal with both subjects being studied in the same institution. All fashion students are given a week of leather studies but are not expected to use leather if they do not wish to, and the leather staff teach the subject with passion but without forcing any indoctrination. 

Time given to learning about leather

Increasingly, I have seen other fashion schools making visits to Northampton to spend some time learning a little about leather and, given their wonderful new facilities, they are well placed to do this.

It would be good if ways could be found to encourage wider industry support for this – from fashion and retail brands as much as tanneries. It is exceptionally beneficial for the industry and quite a few of the visitors, from education and industry, become interested in attending the short courses or distance leather courses now being provided. A more complete understanding of the subject of sustainability comes from escaping the pressure of oversimplified soundbites.

Given that Stella McCartney is a frequently used as an example of a designer who is faithful to sustainable goals, the importance of this work is obvious. When we objected to the PETA video she did nearly a decade ago, attacking leather for using arsenic and other long forgotten chemicals, a lot of the design industry people told us she was viewed as marginal and fanatic, but she has stuck to her task and gained respect. 

She still refers to the long-discredited Livestock’s Long Shadow report from 2006 as evidence of livestock causing climate change, so we still need to fight to rebalance the evidence.

Fashionistas

The author of the Conversation article is Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas, Professor of Marketing and Sustainable Business at the British School of Fashion (GCU London), Glasgow Caledonian University, and is also editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury Fashion Business Cases. She notes that by entering a fashion department the students are already part of the industry, not just being taught about it. 

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Natascha says this is an industry with “a well-documented history of unsustainable practices including intensive and excessive production, textile waste, lack of transparency and poor labour conditions”. As tanners, our concern is mostly about the material choices designers make, but fashion students will be expected to cover so much more, and it is hard to do so without taking shortcuts or making assumptions. Education is vital and we must play our part.

The leather industry has contacts with fashion schools at many levels and these are increasing quite quickly with new interventions via competitions, recruitment, talks and other activities. These are to be greatly encouraged and our various associations need to reach out to the countries and regions where leather is ignored or not in any way linked to our industry. Emerging nations are typical opportunities, and often visiting talks and provision of leather samples to work with can make a big impact.

I now find myself confronted by a 10-year-old grandson and a six-year-old granddaughter telling me they will not eat meat; the former on “ethical” grounds and the latter because of David Attenborough. I have colleagues who tell of teenage children quietly reminding them that “keeping cows is bad for the planet”. 

Given that the UK by and large is an entirely grass-fed livestock country with high levels of regenerative agriculture involved, helping solve rather than cause the climate change and biodiversity problems, this is a problematic state of affairs. 

So, it is clear that we need to educate a much wider section of the public. There have been many short publications and cartoons produced by associations and tanneries and many more are needed. I am particularly excited by the carefully produced work of Leather Naturally on leather education under the topics:

  • Why use leather?
  • Properties of leather
  • Benefits of leather
  • What is leather made of and where does it come from?

They provide excellent, accurate material for all levels about leather and can be used widely from schools to museums as well as brands and retailers. Tanners who open their doors to the community, or have visiting politicians and business leaders, should prepare them as handouts. 

Education is vital, and now is our moment of need. Leather has a story which is central to the issues of climate change and biodiversity, but it needs to be told. The material is available to aid us and every one of us needs to make active use of it.

Mike Redwood

September 21, 2021

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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