In 2018, “toxic” was the Oxford Dictionary word of the year, evidence of how the meaning of the word has changed over time. Originally from the ancient Greek, meaning the poison tip of an arrow, Oxford recognised that it is now used to explain anything harmful. Nowadays, the word also covers biology and chemistry but also masculinity and relationships – and is liked because it is a mysterious word that implies something unnatural.

In the 1500s, Paracelsus – the “father” of modern toxicology – noted that everything was poisonous, including water and oxygen, stating: “Only the dose makes the poison”. This is why items in our food, everyday products and leather are controlled to parts per million and why tanners should stay away from the emotive Britney Spears’ musical type of definitions and stick to science.

The Delphic Oracles maxim “nothing to excess” clearly had wisdom, and ignoring it has added carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, over-fished the rivers and oceans and led to carelessness about dumping waste – totally ignoring the need to say “enough”.

Given the number of fossil fuel and animal rights lobbyists in Glasgow at COP26, we observed the grave danger presented by those fighting for simple objectives while deliberately ignoring the externalities.

Room for “enough”

Governments and capitalists must find room for the term “enough” in their thinking. The drive for economic growth to reduce poverty has become tightly tied into excess, unhealthy low-cost food and cheap goods that do not last. Some say that modern technology will save us in time, but the evidence is that modern technology has only made it easier to empty the seas and fill them with microplastics, to turn the land into monocultural wastelands with ruined soils and destroy biodiversity. To talk of future technologies while reopening coal mines to achieve growth does not compute.

The leather industry is trapped between powerful meat and dairy industries and big brands determined to maintain margins while arguing “sustainability” in ways defined to suit their specific circumstances. As Giorgio Riello wrote: “Cattle are not, therefore, slaughtered to produce leather, but to supply meat. Leather prices are influenced by the number of cattle, the turnover and the total amount of meat consumed.” The tense is changed here because he wrote about the leather industry in 18th century France and Britain.

Leather must build on new opportunities for supply chain cooperation, leading supply chain management and offering a raft of innovation. In most countries, tanners work closely with the raw hide supply chain and can support transparency in their supplies, while a successful tannery business has good relationships with its main customers (although some unfortunate behaviour by brands during the pandemic has damaged trust).

All three groups need to come together to end the idea that leather is somehow “toxic” and show it to be the most natural and most suited material to help in the battle to slow climate change and reverse the loss of biodiversity.

To make good use of all the hides and skins and prevent the waste of unused raw material going to landfill will need similar cooperation and high levels of innovation. This is more than adding a coat of pigment but innovation that rages through the product, process and services aspects of making leather and of presenting it to consumers in products that meet the criteria of affordable value, where longevity and repair are clear benefits. “Wastes” must become income streams and energy, leather must be redesigned and packaged for 21st century consumers

Competitive materials are putting every penny into product development and noisy consumer communications, neither of which had a high priority in the leather industry over the last century. But just think of the U.S. in the last 30 years of the 19th century, as newly invented machinery was put to use in modern factories and a mix of Gloversville and New York tanners, traders, inventors and chemical suppliers produced first the Dongola Tannage to replace costly Glace Kid with its egg yolk consumption. Chrome tanning was patented and made commercial not only for the target of ladies corsets but with huge new tanneries built in Philadelphia to produce kidskins for ladies footwear in American cities and subsequently the world. Let us ignite that spirit once again.

Mike Redwood

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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