Or is my real hate that it only works on iPhones and I object to being pressured into upgrading to get decent battery life and a much bigger data contract? Frankly, I object to giving up gadgets of all sorts far before they really should be ending their useful life. The deliberate decision to build them no thought to future developments, or to withdraw support from older ones so the consumer has to make an early replacement is improper. Or worse, to relentlessly change the design in ways intended to force change as a result of a desire to be seen to be up to date with the fashion.

Given that longevity is a foundational key to both sustainability and the circular economy, it is quite frightening that our society is keener on stopping livestock grazing on long-term grassland, essential for good soil and carbon dioxide sequestration, instead of battling this intentional adoption of disposable design by some of our richest companies. The concept is even sliding over into the leather sector as some automobile companies see shorter term rentals rather than ownership as an opportunity to argue for cheaper plastic seats since longevity is less important and they can argue they are vegan.

This brings me back to Clubhouse, where some of the best discussions have been about sustainability. What becomes clear is that too many people in influential positions are making up the definitions as they go along and sometimes putting themselves at risk of sliding into a whole world of old fashioned green wash while overlooking the vital aspect of longevity.

When Professor Walter Stahel wrote his Product-Life Factor (Mitchell Prize Winning Paper 1982), the process began by looking at the end of the useful life of buildings. He started as an architect and was aware that it was easier and more profitable for a developer to tear down an old building and totally replace it with new materials. But when he began to factor in the cost to the planet of this process, he realised that with a more careful redesign, renovation and refurbishment, we could maximise the life of the materials and dramatically reduce the depletion of the planet’s resources as compared to a new build. He showed how, if extended to everyday products, this could become a ‘closed loop’ economy which eventually was picked up by McDonough and Braungart in their important book “Cradle to Cradle”, albeit they focused more on the end-of-life of those everyday products.

For many years, this led product developers and designers to be learning more about materials and products at end-of-life. Dismantling and recycling as either technical or organic materials being the priority, with Michael Braungart in particular fighting to persuade us that too much recycling was using the materials sub-optimally when they needed to be properly recovered and used as originally intended. He wanted upcycling rather than downcycling.

It took a 2016 paper from Stahel, published in Nature, to remind us that the upcycling was important but involved all the difficulties and environmental costs of collecting, transporting, dismantling, reprocessing, remaking, repackaging and redistribution so should be done as far down the line as possible with every year of extended use being of major importance. The major benefit came with creating products that last a long time, can be easily maintained and can be either or both refurbished and repaired. For some decades, he has thought that this repair work would employ 4% of the workforce, which unlike so many retail and other jobs, cannot be replaced by robots. He has also argued that extended life could save up to 70% of our emissions.

Leather fits perfectly in this scenario as it lasts well and usually looks better with age. It is very low maintenance and many of us have items decades old or handed down from previous generations. I called the Product Life Institute for some advice earlier in the year and was surprised to get an almost immediate response from Professor Stahel himself. In an unsolicited comment he noted: “A key topic is also patina – leather gets a patina, it gains in attraction, plastic just gets dirty and ugly.”

With a lot of physical retail lost during the pandemic, we now find ourselves with many wonderful old town centre buildings lying vacant, and I have a number in small towns near my home. I do hope that those under threat of demolition from greedy developers get saved as Walter Stahel would wish; but I am ever more keen that tanners make leather with longevity top of mind and work with designers to create designs suited for repair with appropriate threads and zips.

Now is the moment to make ‘leather is timeless’ true in every aspect.

Mike Redwood
April 14, 2021


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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