This is a simple measure of the amounts of valuable resources that we choose to classify as “waste”. Even in the UK, where efforts are made to reduce this, less than 25% gets recycled or re-used in any way.

While recycling diverts materials from the waste of landfill it is far from ideal. Reprocessing uses a lot of energy and they often end up in items for which they are not perfectly suited. Industrially tanners have started to recognise that waste equals value and programmes such as fleshings to biodiesel and lime splitting to divert the splits towards gelatine are becoming commonplace.

Yet for real impact we need to do something to adjust consumer behaviour. Data from the organisation WRAP says consumers dispose of washing machines far earlier than the 6 years they are designed to last and provides horrendous numbers for the environmental and societal cost of those lost years.

We often promote items as being suited to recycling or being biodegradable but there is little evidence that “sustainability” is high in the mind of the consumer at the moment of purchase. It would be much better for consumers to make effective use of products longer. In fact it would make products and brands more trusted if we told consumers how long things should roughly last and how to care for them: this along with deciding with designers how items will be used, whether the construction and all the materials have the longevity required and what will happen at end of life.

Although I have seen claims that rhubarb tanned leather is 100% biodegradable*, the most noticeable thing about leather is that it rarely wears out. It is the threads and other parts that usually define the length of life of a leather product. Let us work together to design products with better threads and components and also to help consumers stop the leather looking tired or scuffed. Then nearly all leather items could be given a huge boost in years of use.

A leather item should not be considered disposable and consumers should develop a relationship with brands using leather properly that stops them switching all the time. Most people reading this are associated with leather. You will know that your footwear, gloves and bags can last a long time and you probably have quite a few items that have lasted decades, perhaps handed down from your parents. If we can get consumers thinking like this we will do well for society.

*I am not convinced from the promotional material that it is either really tanned with rhubarb nor truly biodegradable under EN 13432 as has been suggested to me. I would welcome further information on this.

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Mike Redwood

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