For thousands of years, all of society, including a few tanners, knew that leather lasts a very long time and articles made from it that were well designed, carefully constructed and used well-chosen components would be repaired and refreshed to last through generations.
Our museums are full of such articles. They are everywhere. Transport museums, war museums, sport museums, polar museums, communications museums, fashion museums, firefighting museums, industrial museums and almost every other sort of museum you can think of has items of leather, so ubiquitous was it as societies evolved from the first moments humans stood straight.
Every resource was scarce, so they used their leather carefully, developed great designs and looked after the articles they made even although they were used hard. They repaired them and, if they did get destroyed in some way, they always managed to repurpose the bits and pieces. Bottles became salt holders, jackets got turned into purses.
Leather has soul
Many categories of luxury goods are totally or largely made of leather, or the leather provides the humanity that gives them soul. Lots of the luxury companies started with leather, making travel cases or saddles. All were made to last, often treasured items.
But during the 20th century, this pattern was damaged, badly. Synthetic threads and plastic linings were introduced, which did not last as long. Mass production made more and more goods to vacuum up the cash available as living standards and incomes rose. Things were not so scarce or expensive and they were all relatively easily replaced. Quality declined.
So, when the 1990s came and all the world had access to cheap labour in Asia, even more goods were made that were even more affordable. Some synthetic garments could be measured by not withstanding more than one or two washes, according to fashion writer Elizabeth Kline. Almost the definition of disposable fashion. Hardly used and off to landfill, or gifted to some emerging economy to quickly end smouldering on a distant waste disposal landfill that always seems to be on fire.
Did we let some of our leathers follow this downward route too? A commodity with a neat label, or just a commodity. Bottom feeding with the plastics, losing its sense of identity.
So, here is a recommendation. Delve into how all of your customers use your leather. Ask about the type of thread and the other components. Are they natural, are they biodegradable, will they last? How about the design? Are they designing for repair? Is there a zip hidden away in a dark corner? Threads and zips break first and zips need to be accessible for repair.
In 2023, fit for purpose means fit for repair
It’s time to collaborate in new ways with your customers, to support them in passing the features and benefits that differentiate leather and plastic from other competitive offerings. It does not help if the items cannot be repaired, are not going to benefit from refurbishment and there is no plan for eventual end-of-life. A particular problem for complex multi material articles.
We want to be in the business of giving consumers articles whose obvious values will make them want to keep them longer. The sofa that has been the centre of family life as the children grew up. The handbag that was gifted when you were engaged. The briefcase you bought on your last promotion. The welted shoes that are still comfortable after two resolings. Items that wear in over time that better with use, rather than wear out in a rush, or quickly get ugly with handling like so many alternates.
To achieve these outcomes, we have to work a little harder with our customers.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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