“As the twenty-first century unfolds, it is becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time – energy, the environment, climate change, food security, financial security – cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent.”

These five topics are familiar, as the leather industry is linked in various ways into each one. The quote above, from The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra, explains why traditional tools and worldviews struggle to address the challenges we face today.

Without delving deeply into the details of systems thinking, there is a beauty in taking this quotation at its face value and recognising that, through the ages, the leather industry has made an extremely positive contribution to our world, and that many of the troubles leather faces today come from a determination for growth and “efficiencies” in our economies that never paused to consider the unexpected consequences.

Throughout history, leather has offered major benefits from employment in its production and use to advancing techniques in making and using leather providing opportunities for society to make progress in areas such as housing, transport, storage, clothing and footwear.

The United States Geological Survey recently published a global map of arable agricultural land, which Professor Frank Mitlloehner noted was “sobering” as the area was exceptionally small, often in locations already being impacted by climate change. “Thankfully,” Mitloehner continues, “we also have marginal agricultural land, largely used by ruminants upcycling non-human edible forages and producing high-value animal source food”.

If we consider the environment, food security and climate change the system that leather is an integral part of, as the user of a product developed out of the livestock industry, leather has always played a largely benign role. This system is even more important today if we are to slow the decline but also to create positive reversal in areas such as soil health and biodiversity through regenerative agriculture.

In the era of the industrial revolution, many larger tanneries using new chemicals did damage to surrounding land and watercourses but, as scientific knowledge improved in the latter half of the 20th century, old plants closed or were updated and the industry transformed itself. Without question, remnants of the old industry remain and are struggling to self-correct, but most of the industry sits on a good platform and offers several excellent third-party auditing approaches: an area where the global industry must work harder to help accelerate change.

Every major tannery complex should be looking at producing power via biodiesel from fleshings and biogas from anaerobic digestion or pyrolytic incineration. Historically, leather belting and other leather items were integral in the efficient delivery of power from wind and water, not forgetting the huge role leather played in horsepower before the invention of the internal combustion engine. Today, modern tannery drums have greatly reduced both the energy and water that tanneries use, and increasingly tanneries are situated where solar, geothermal or wind power can be utilised.

The biggest saving in energy, and in the planet’s resources, is the fact that leather is a natural by-product and articles made from it offer a fair wage to all the artisans involved in its production chain when made into articles that utilise the longevity of leather. Leather lasts, usually getting better with use, and most leather articles are easily maintained and repaired, so the energy required for endlessly making new articles, or constantly recycling old ones, can be eliminated.

We can conclude that leather works well in the greater system, and small changes can quickly reverberate through that system. The thoughtless, overenthusiastic use of plastics is evidence of a design error, as we now understand the multiple layers of harm it is doing to worsen each of “the major problems of our time”. There is nothing like having thousands of years of experience.

Mike Redwood


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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