Mike Redwood

Columnist

International Leather Maker


I do not know how many times I have heard the comment that if leather was “discovered” today it would be defined as a superb material. Given the context of history and current times such a truism is unhelpful. Leather has worked its miracles over thousands of years but over the last thirty the industry chose not to write its narrative, and then found that others had crafted a misleading one instead. In the world today every business needs a storyteller.

Recent efforts show that leather is now getting a seat at more tables, yet it is still not enough. The consequences are that too often hides and skins now go into landfill instead of the tannery. All round the world. Farmers and abattoirs need a fair and steady price, without the volatility that has done so much harm over the last decade; it is hard to escape from thinking that careless comments about value at the peaks from the tanning and hide supply side has only increased harm done.

Next-gen materials

I listened recently to an online seminar on next-gen materials. Once, these were all about replacing leather with a definition: “Next-gen materials” are animal-free and environmentally preferable direct replacements for conventional animal-based leather, silk, fur, down, wool and exotic skins.”

Now, the sector is looking more at wider everyday fashion, where about two-thirds of the materials used are from fossil fuels – polyester, polyamides, polyurethanes, PVC and the like.

The speakers created a language of crafting new fibres or non-woven materials based on “biology” or “with nature”. Mostly these are viscose or cellulose, with future hopes for mycelium and some other outliers. Close your eyes and the descriptions you are listening to as imagined outcomes are the characteristics of leather or wool.

This is disappointing. We need many more good materials to replace all the petrochemical materials. They have wasted a decade trying to copy leather, stealing the phraseology that combines beauty with high performance in a circular product without yet coming close to the essential properties.

As we entered the pandemic, we thought the golden era of these new biomaterials was arriving but, in the years since, reality has hit and many of the leaders have withdrawn or readjusted their strategies. Their storytelling ran ahead of their achievements, and these are hard to judge because of the lack of transparency about the products.

Appearing to have better success are hybrid products using tannery and shoe factory trimmings and shavings, building materials superior to leather board and bonded leather and, hopefully, honestly sold.

Time to collaborate

It is time to stop fighting the better biomaterials that are now persevering but collaborate, support the sector and add a new adjacent line for future survival and growth. The leather trade has often celebrated this lack of success of biomaterials but, long term, this is a mistake.

We urgently need to replace synthetic fibres in the garment and leather goods sectors. With their large surface area, washing polyester garments is a major contributor to ocean micro-particles and making recycled polyester from plastic bottles increasingly looks like greenwashing as the “new” recycled polyester must be incinerated at end-of-life. From what I understand, coloured polyester cannot even be recycled.

Climate change and cows

Longer-term global warming adds another dimension. Livestock is attacked by vegans, but inaccuracies (and closed minds) about methane unfairly blame ruminants for global warming as well. We need to switch these arguments totally around. With meat and milk providing so much of the essential global diet, what does the future of our livestock populations look like?

With current temperature trends, life below the 45oN parallel looks to be difficult unless, as in New Zealand or Patagonia, you can move into the mountains. Check your map. Sometime before 2100, livestock in Australia, Africa, Brazil, India and southern Europe, along with a good part of the U.S., will be struggling with heat stress and a shortage of water.

It may be sooner with triggers like wildfires putting black soot onto the Arctic ice and the melting of glaciers accelerating a process which many politicians choose to ignore. Already, potatoes and broccoli are being harvested in Greenland, unheard of a few years ago, and Chinese farmers are slipping into northeastern China to grow crops on land that was only recently permanently frozen. Canada is planning a threefold population increase. But what about the cows, and the hides and skins?

It is hard to see how our tanneries can remain busy in the long-term, and consumers supplied with decent materials, if tanners do not broaden their horizons, work out how to get nearer 100% of hides and skins made into leather, be properly creative with the lower grades for the 21st century and get involved in creating a raft of next-gen materials to run alongside leather and replace plastics.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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