A couple of days before Christmas, I sat in a coffee shop in Street, Somerset, in the modern retail site where the footwear brand Clarks started in 1825. What should have been a short pre-Christmas conversation with an industry colleague (not a Clarks’ employee) saw minutes turn into hours as we casually swapped thoughts on the big environmental issues that the industry faces.
The fervour of our discussion highlighted some questions for which answers are needed, and which boardrooms need to have on their urgent agenda. To replace New Year Resolutions, here are a few looking forward to 2030:
- Will we still be tanning with chromium?
- What will tanneries be using as their primary source of energy?
- Will tannery water usage be reduced by a further 30%?
- Will tanneries achieve zero to landfill?
- What systems will be in place to ensure circularity is maintained at the end-of-life of articles made with leather?
Why 2030? Whatever your opinions on climate change and biodiversity loss, and I know from my post box these are diverse and strongly held, there is no doubt that change is ongoing, and it is for the worse.
Failure to address this whole area prior to 2030 risks hitting tipping points such as melting ice fields and permafrost landscapes that will be hard to reverse. So, thinking in terms of 2030 and planning the action needed to meet the target on time becomes essential. The technologies involved are not new, but they do need to be implemented faster.
The chromium question is at the top since the question was asked by CTCP, the Portuguese Footwear Technological Centre, which is involved in a project on the bioeconomy named BIOSHOES4ALL, financed within the EU Recovery and Resilience Programme. It involves more than 60 partners, most of them footwear, components and leather goods SMEs.
While this study will look at non-leather materials, sustainable leather is still seen as quite central, but for shoe factory waste and footwear end-of-life, the handling of chrome-tanned leather is seen as problematic if viable circular solutions are to be identified. It would be simpler to use a different tanning method.
Given that the era of cheap money and abundant energy is clearly over, and although the leather industry has taken big strides in these areas, more clearly needs to be done. It is quite appropriate to argue that leather makes use of more water than it actually consumes, but what gets classed as consumption should start to include salt-containing water pumped into the sea or soaked into the landscape.
Changes in behaviour
On the face of it, these look like simple points, but behind them sit quite profound and serious issues that require thought by every stakeholder. In some instances, such as repair, refurbishment and end-of-life management new business models would be needed at almost every stage. We are already seeing the rise in new forms of ownership be it rental or subscription services, or some form of hand back at the end-of-life.
These new models will vary by sector. It might be a handbag bought on a refurbish or replacement system of an electric vehicle that the maker wants back to reuse the rare earth metals in the batteries. Changing away from chromium is also a major matter for tanneries; chrome tanning was first thought up in the 1850s, but it did not really start to rampage through the industry until the 1920s. Change is complicated.
Associated questions will need to be asked about materials and articles. How long should a pair of shoes last? Should all footwear be repairable? Given that most footwear contains multiple materials managing them at end of their life is difficult, never mind the work needed to get them back from consumers.
The industry spent the year on mute
Throughout 2022, I tried to encourage the leather industry to consider what net zero would look like, but it was clear the industry spent the year on mute, concerned as it was about dealing with many other issues. Yet, overall, this century the leather industry has done well on the environmental front and its positive, science-based sustainability narrative is starting to cut through. But sustainability is a long, never-ending commitment, not an endpoint, and we need to keep moving forward to maintain credibility.
So let us turn off mute and start discussing the details of the next stages in our path to continuous improvement, setting our 2030 targets. It is in this mode that new ideas, new models and a new excitement will arise and stay with leather in 2023 and beyond.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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