On the positive side, as we started writing environmental manuals in the early 90s, the industry switched its attitude to all aspects of waste management to a pro-active can-do one. Our machinery suppliers became serious about producing machines that helped with quality, productivity while reducing inputs of water, power and chemicals. Increasingly old, smaller tanneries with poor facilities closed and were replaced by fewer larger, modern, better located ones. And we, with a push from the brands, set up one of the world’s leading auditing bodies for environmental matters.

Yet, in a mere three decades we trashed the reputation of chromium as a tanning material and had thousands of tanneries turning up at trade fairs offering “chrome free” or “metal free” leathers without thought for the implications, or accuracy, of what they were promoting. We stayed quiet as thousands of low-grade tanneries continued all round the world behaving in quite horrendous ways towards their employees and their local environment. And the success of the new auditing meant that we watched as throughout the supply chain skilled buyers were replaced by less costly staff who could not tell whether a tannery was working honestly or not.

Badly made leather will quickly do irreparable harm
In doing all that we confused our responsibilities for both our industrial methodology and any understanding of branding, not realising that badly made leather will quickly do irreparable harm to the overall image of leather as a material wherever the leather is produced or the offences committed. Advertising that “we are different” on the basis that “we behave responsibly” is a meaningless approach and only serves to emphasise that leather is a problematic material.

Quietly through the nineties and noughties we ignored the implications of attacks on kangaroo leather and reptile leather, without developing a position. We stood away assuming the band of fanatics not worth engaging as they developed their funding, their narrative and their indoctrination of younger generations, particularly online.

Concurrently hundreds of firms in China and elsewhere were making horrendous plastic-coated textiles using solvents that were deadly for the workforce and calling it “synthetic leather” – even putting the term in the company name. They started invading trade shows all round the world.

This was the moment we should have been protecting the term leather rather than indignantly complaining today. Not that we are wrong to complain, but we should not forget that we let it happen. Leather is our material, nobody else’s, and if we lose control of the narrative, we can blame no one but ourselves.

You might think all this harsh, but do remember that for much of the last three decades our main representative bodies were quite dysfunctional, as they argued over membership related to free trade. Given the sudden change in the position of the U.S., this sounds strange today, but it was a dominant issue for a long time, coinciding with the battle to adapt to the dramatic change created by the entry of China into a dominant position in many supply chains.

You might look at this history from a different perspective or argue with some of the detail, but the underlying facts remain that the leather industry enters the new decade in a bad place with a lot to do, and not so much time. Yet today, although we remain too fragmented, our main trade associations are generally rejuvenated and working better. They have a big task.

We have to quickly regain our reputation, and put right all the elements needed to justify arguments that leather is one of the most sustainable materials. We must reclaim the term leather and honour and control its proper development as tanneries find themselves producing more hybrid materials and working with other biomaterials.

For there is no doubt that while we have been sleeping, the world has changed. We can recover our narrative, but the consumer world is different. In the next three decades we will see that in many instances tanneries will be changing dramatically in order to continue to prosper.

Mike Redwood
January 8, 2020

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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