Throughout the past two years, we have frequently seen calls for a return to “normal” but future normality will clearly be quite different from before Covid. Global pandemics added to everyday life cause major transformations not temporary adaptations. Wherever you live the future will be different from the past.

This will be another challenging year for our industry as we search for equilibrium with a virus likely to keep flaring up while so much of the world misses out on vaccinations; and while countries such as China struggle to exit an isolationist policy. Supply chains will be volatile, inflation looks problematic and both demand and routes to market will keep evolving.

At COP26 in 2021, hopes for “building back better” were obviously drowned in localised politics as governments stayed away and others were shaky on their commitments, scared of sacrificing the election benefits of short-term economic growth. Yet, two of the most difficult years ever has the leather industry in better condition than could have been expected, and strong enough to accept the challenge of New Year resolutions. So, here are two.

Stamp out the abuse of the word leather

Leather is a scientific term and describes what is clearly one of the best materials available to help us with climate change and biodiversity loss. No more complaining about it, we need action through the courts to use existing legislation on nomenclature, misleading advertising and abuse of trade descriptions; publicising every success so that competitive materials are intimidated into decent behaviour. We must stamp out the abuse of the word leather.

Some senior leather industry executives have argued that this is not worth the fuss or the cost as leather will win in the end, but it looks like the damage is too great. Consumers are being aggressively confused, often quite flagrantly, by sales staff.

This does not change my view that the better new biobased materials should be encouraged to replace the many fossil-fuel sourced synthetics that are now used in footwear, upholstery and even garments. Given that leather production can never grow to fill this sector, it makes sense for tanneries to collaborate with their expertise in non-wovens, natural materials and marketing. And sincere vegans have a right to a decent choice of materials.

What would net-zero look like for leather?

My major hope for leather in 2022 would be to see the development of a second 2022 Leather Manifesto to respond to the COP26 requirement to return at the end of this year with plans closer to the 1.5°C target. With companies and industries having joined the “coalitions of the willing”, leather should take a lead in the material sector. The coming together of 30 organisations in the powerful November statement created a platform that should be built upon.

What would net-zero look like for leather and its supply networks? How does leather interact with biodiversity, with the reduction of poverty, with avoiding pollution, waste, oil or coal-based energy consumption and the over-rapid utilisation of the planet’s resources?

Almost every country in the world has leather embedded as a historical and cultural production, helping to provide a mix of artisan and skilled jobs using the locally available raw material that would otherwise be wasted to provide a long-lasting material with a benign impact on the environment. Given this huge reach, country by country policies could be sought out and tailored to reach the global targets complete with timetables.

We recognise big weak spots for the leather industry in labour treatment and failing waste management around the world. These must be honestly identified and addressed, but surely they are excellent areas where finance could be legitimately sought from the adaptation and reparation funds coming from the climate talks? All tanning centres should be turning some of their wastes to energy, solving two issues at once and securing decent employment for tannery workers and the opportunity for many more jobs in leather using industries.

Let us use 2022 to build a new plan for growth and prosperity in leather through leadership in thought and action to match our incredible history and quite amazing modern material.

Mike Redwood

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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