When the American company Bolt Threads decided to stop its development of mycelium as a leather replacement, many excited commenters noted that the two stumbling blocks were performance and very high prices.
How often have tanners been told of key retail price points, which cannot be breached, where leather must take the hit and give up on a needed price rise, or even take a cut? In footwear, leather goods and even automobiles, these price ceiling arguments keep coming up.
Often, shoe companies have switched to PU-coated alternates when leather prices have risen and, when leather prices (driven by raw material pressures) have slipped back, the business usually returned – until the last few years. The longer-term impact for leather has been that tanners have increasingly been pulled into a commodity trap.
Given all the claims and counter claims going on about sustainability in materials and fashion, this scenario is amazing. We used to say that, with few exceptions, all available hides and skins ended up as leather. No longer. A sizeable portion are being thrown into landfill at the exact moment society has realised how bad the PU-coated and synthetic materials replacing it actually are.
Until recently, the loudest complaint I made about the leather industry was a longstanding failure to recognise the role of marketing. If the industry had started earlier, and invested properly, names like “synthetic” and “vegan” leather would never have made it into the sector. Leather’s value as a natural material would have been recognised.
Perhaps there is an even bigger aspect to this long refusal to market, which I well remember back in the 1970s and 1980s, when marketing proposals were met with dismissive, cynical humour. Marketing is all about knowing how to position a product and proper marketing would have allowed leather to maintain a stronger price structure in the costing battle with brands and retailers.
This would have made it easier to keep away from the commodity world, and higher prices would free up more money for research, which has been so badly lacking throughout the last five decades.
Only in black
According to reports on Bolt Threads from July 2021, Milo was priced at around US$25 per square foot. This forced Stella McCartney to charge 25% more than for similar bags made of other materials. And Milo could only be made in black.
Part of that extra material cost was needed to recover research costs – money already sunk in the product – but also for ongoing work. The leather industry should realise that, while the infamous FILK report identified issues that the biomaterials industry had not come clean about, the better companies involved are still busy working on improvements with sizeable research and development budgets.
For those tanners who oppose the development of biomaterials, there is no reason to cheer. Almost every failed technology in history has died in clamorous delight that the competition had tripped at the last hurdle. False glee is best avoided. Despite the long journey, biomaterials are still obtaining and spending large amounts on R&D, which dwarfs a leather industry that chooses to leave its research sector, like marketing, with crumbs.
Marketing, research and survival
Tanners need to double down on their marketing, not be hesitant and unwilling to spend. The campaigns all need to expand and keep going year after year, requiring the widest support. Anyone battling low prices should ask themselves how much they have been contributing. Marketing, research and survival are all one.
At the same time, the industry should seek out the hides and skins being thrown away and establish a way to get them back into the marketplace. Not as a low-end commodity but as a proud example of nature’s courage and the resilience and longevity of natural material. Why not make “barebones leather” a new global umbrella identity for this material, which has been so foolishly rejected by brands and retailers chasing cheap plastic prices using false, if not illegal, sustainability claims?
Barebones – an aniline or assisted-aniline natural leather which everyone makes in their own style around the world and sells at a proper price. Only sold for products that can be repaired and are intended to last. Where a proper price means true value for the consumer. I’m already a fan.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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