Mike Redwood

Columnist

International Leather Maker


Innovation has people confused, whether it comes to how to define it, how to get involved in it or how to apply it. We have been watching this with chrome tanning; both its arrival and its departure. First thought up in the 1830s, it was not really until the 1920s and 1930s that it started to make big inroads into the mainstream bovine industry. Even when I joined Barrow Hepburn at the end of the 1960s, what was variously called “light leather” or “side leather” based on chromium was still viewed with deep resentment.

The reasons for the slow acceptance were varied. A major systemic change in equipment away from pits was required, and the performance, appearance and handle of chrome tanned leathers was poor. With industrial and agricultural footwear in high demand, saddles and bridles needed for an economy and transportation system still dependant on horses and mostly heavy leather needed for the growing industrial sector the need for chrome tanning was not obvious, other than to save time.

The value of a light leather for footwear away from the farm or industry became clear in the U.S. in 1860s when James Kent made Dongola leather in Gloversville. Backed by the UK-based Booth Group, he was chasing a cheaper process to glace kid. He used alum, salt, and gambier in one solution with less use of flour and egg yolks. The leather was not actually very good for gloving but excellent for lightweight kidskin footwear. It boomed after the famous American boxer John L. Sullivan wore Dongola tanned kangaroo shoes in one of his big fights.

Urbanisation was growing rapidly in the late 19th century in the U.S., and city ladies demanded lighter footwear. Chrome-tanned kidskin became the preferred material where some of the soap and oil softening methods ended up with chrome-tanned leather feeling so thin and empty. Booths was on a roll as it was its U.S. CEO who persuaded Schultz to look at chrome tanning and provide material from its Gloversville tannery, suggesting he need to make a more waterproof leather that would avoid staining in ladies’ corsets. Twenty years or so later, the company had bought over and rebuilt the world’s largest kid skin tannery in Philadelphia and chrome tanning skins, many of which were imported on its own Booth shipping line.

By comparison, when Joseph Turney Wood worked out that bates could be preplaced by an artificial enzyme, the industry uptake was rapid. Its benefits were obvious and changes to use it were minimal. Since replacing chromium today does not require big equipment changes nor major alterations in products, we have to ask what has been stalling it? And why have so many other process changes come almost totally as a reaction to legislation rather than ahead of it?

Pavitt’s Taxonomy on innovation helps us understand this sector specific problem. Leather in the time of James Kent and Joseph Turney Wood was science-based and researched in the tannery with later support from universities and industry research bodies. But, as industry globalised research became supplier dominated with both the leather chemical and the specialist machinery producers in charge, tanneries largely moved to the management of process controller.

This is not the situation with the main biomaterial competitors, funding for which mostly goes into research, where they mix in house and collaborative approaches. While some new competitive materials are little more than a bowl of polythene with added vegetable matter, it is wrong to class them all as plastic enemies. The recent 2022 State of the Industry Report: Next-gen Materials, published by the Material Innovation Initiative (MII), says that the “next-gen material” industry invested US$457 million in 2022, down from US$1.14 billion in 2021. More important for the leather industry is to consider that a total of US$3 billion has been invested since 2013.

“Next-gen materials” are “livestock-free direct replacements for conventional animal-based leather, silk, fur, down, wool and exotic skins. They use a variety of biomimicry approaches to replicate the aesthetics and performance of their animal-based counterparts”, notes the report.

MII argues that “industrial animal farming is a leading cause of many of the pressing problems of our time, including climate change, environmental degradation, public health risks, and animal cruelty”. The organisation identified 64 companies producing alternatives to leather with smaller numbers doing wool, silk and a few involved in fur replacements. They are mostly working on plant-derived materials, but microbe-derived, mycelium and cultivated animal cells, as well as recycled materials and blends, are involved.

In this sector, investment funding fluctuates with fundraising rounds, so it is the $3 billion over the last decade we need to look at. Our suppliers have worked hard with the machinery companies, perhaps making more of a lasting impact, but however we had it up the combined industry investment would not come close to $3 billion over three decades, never mind one.

This is the real challenge. Times are currently difficult but reducing spending on marketing, the environment and research would be the gravest error. We need to consider why, where and how we do our research and consciously fund it.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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