A long and better life for leather

Redwood Comment
Published:  24 November, 2021
Credit: Jonas Allert

The fact that leather lasts longer than competitive materials is one of its key strengths, says Mike Redwood.

This can create problems for those whose circular economy thinking is only based on the 2002 publication Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. This has its focus on the end-of-life separation of chemical and biological content.

The biological returns to nature and chemicals are reprocessed to be used as if they were virgin materials. Designers must establish how easily articles can be dismantled in this way when they reach their end of life.

This can be important with leather as, in many articles, it is mixed with other items such as zips, threads, linings and the like, but the idea inherent in this view of the circular economy that end of life should come quickly is very alien to leather.

Longevity is key

Longevity is the keystone in the bridge that makes leather such a wonderful material and creating a tanning process which allows it to last has been a technical search since the start of humanity. With leather, a designer who knows materials should design with both longevity and repair as the primary objectives. Other materials should be of top quality and items such as zips placed so that they will be accessible for repair.

Invariably it is the non-leather elements which create the failure, and it is fair to say that most leather items are easily maintained and can be repaired. This is another area that needs promotion and we must be sure tanners continue to make leathers that fit these criteria.

This all plays into the lifetime cost of ownership, the concept of value and the carbon footprint that relates to disposing of items and making new ones, using new resources from our small planet. Viewed from this angle, a more expensive purchase becomes cheaper with use. This also applies to the drawing of quick assumptions from the McDonough and Braungart approach that it is fine to dispose of things early if they can be properly recycled: it is not.

Recycling involves many costs, creating significant extra carbon footprints. Collecting, shipping, dismantling, reprocessing, remaking products, repackaging, redistribution and so on. That is why the acknowledged precursor of all Circular Economy thinking was the 1982 Product Life Factor essay by Sahel: using goods longer and then repairing them to extend life could reduce emissions by up to 70% compared to rushing down the consumerism route that buys cheaply and promptly throws away.

This begs the question about how long things should last. Most small leather leather goods companies estimate a minimum of 10 years for items such as wallets, and larger bags for men or women will often last decades, sometimes passing from generation to generation. All leather welted footwear is designed for repair, lasting decades if multiple pairs are rotated so that there is time for perspiration to dry between wears.

Leather and transport

Leather has increased its market share in public transport as it’s easy to care for with little more than a damp cloth, and its longevity has become recognised. Consumers like the comfort and luxury of leather and if this can be offered with a material whose lifetime cost per seat is highly competitive then everyone wins. These thoughts have been extended into restaurants, coffee shops and hotels as well as into interior design. The right leather on the walls of a building can last well over 100 years.

The one area that has become less clear is the automotive industry. High quality cars were once bought and kept for many years. Nowadays the car industry appears enthused by the Microsoft approach to software as a service, where consumers never fully own the product but pay a lease or rental instead.

Does this mean that, instead of looking at seating for 10 years, automobile companies are thinking only in three-year spells? What is the longevity of an automobile, and does building more of them for shorter lives fit with any sustainability plan? Or is the idea to build cheaper seats and swap them every time a new “owner” takes over for their two- or three-year spell? And where does the sudden rush by some brands towards “ethical” or “animal free” sources for “environmental” reasons fit into this area? The personal transport market is changing rapidly but the decision making is not always obvious. One or two major brands appear to be marching up a cul-de-sac.

Leather is used to having markets that shrink and enlarge over time for a wide variety of reasons, but these are normally obvious. At a time when longevity matters more than ever, the logic of the automobile has been obscured from view by obfuscation. 

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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