Mike Redwood


International Leather Maker

The 117th ALCA Annual Convention took place last week and ended with their Awards Banquet, where I found myself sitting with Shep Hermann of Hermann Oak Leather, someone I had always wanted to meet.

I have not been a regular attendee at such events over the last few years but that there was a pace to it like a good detective novel. You have adequate breaks, but you do want to get back in with formal sessions integrated into social events, where it was easy to mix and remind yourself that our industry is populated by great individuals.

Old as tannin is, there is always much more to learn and a conference like ALCA offers a great opportunity as there is time to absorb what is being said and to ask questions later, not just in the moments after a presentation. I was particularly struck at this meeting by the number of presentations from younger scientists working in the leather industry.

We will learn to love Carbon-14

The use of radiocarbon measurement to identify the natural content of materials got a couple of mentions, but the paper by Dr Jordi Escabros was enlightening in that it showed how we could move towards a scientifically-based Environmental Product Declaration that can separate fossil carbon from carbon of natural origin.

Perhaps I was impressed since he referenced the same recent Carcione paper as I had referred to in my own presentation when talking about biomaterials. This identifies the recently developed SCAR spectroscopy as the “most suitable technique” as it offers fast and accurate measurements at an affordable cost. We will learn to love Carbon-14.

This work provides a sound way to underline the qualities of leather and quickly uncover the falsehoods and greenwashing around the claims being made for many alternates. It also shows that some heavily coated leathers like patent and those loaded with synthetic syntans are sliding towards the middle ground occupied by some of the better biomaterials, so tanners should never be complacent.

A business has to reinvent itself every 20 years

Contrasting this with the lengthy dinner conversation with Mr Hermann, who has a lifetime of working with a traditional process (leather that shows up as 100% biobased in the SCAR analysis), highlights just how much knowledge our industry has. We were able to range over the difference between hemlock and oak tanning, the two that existed in the US in the early centuries, the creation of the US Leather Company in 1893 as the largest businesses in the US and a founding member of the Dow, the sweetness of chestnut liquors and its significance and many other fascinating areas.

Although using an ancient process to make specific traditional leathers, Hermann Oak has adapted some of its equipment, process control and managerial methods to make the organisation fit for purpose. As he explains in a YouTube video, “a business has to reinvent itself every 20 years and, with the Internet, that has dropped to 10 years.”

Meeting such a renowned tanner, who I know has given wise council to many in the industry, was a great pleasure and an honour. At the end of the two-day meeting, it only went to emphasise how much we all have to take the time to listen and to learn so we can play our part in that relentless reinvention.


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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