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ILM Deputy Editor Tom Hogarth reflects on the adaptability of the tanning industry and the need to be open to working with other materials.
We’ve co-opted the term biomaterials to describe a new wave of materials which are derived from organic matter, whether it be mycelium grown in a lab or shredded plant material pressed into a sheet, it actually includes leather, one of the most natural materials around with all the benefits that come with a material developed through evolution to be strong, durable and adaptable.
However, like I say, we’ve somewhat co-opted this term. Plenty of people in other industries, hearing the term biomaterials, would think first of biocompatible materials used for medical purposes such as pacemakers, replacement joints or implants.
Biomaterials, alternative materials, new materials, “vegan” materials. The wide range of terms that we pinball between tells us all we need to know about the status quo when it comes to these materials; we are confused. Consumers, brands, manufacturers and the leather industry as a whole seem to have no idea, or entirely conflicting ideas, about what to do with these new competitors, simultaneously casting them into the moulds of villain, ally, non-issue and farce.
I have no doubt that plenty of people in the leather industry will look at research like the 2016 FILK Freiberg study and continue to dismiss biomaterials as a fad, a poorly performing wannabe class of materials which will never compete with leather and will prove to have a short half-life. These people are wrong.
The reality is that these materials have been and are advancing at an unbelievable rate. Plenty of criticism has been directed at the cost of development in terms of money, time and resources. In some cases, these investments are not paying off, but there are plenty where they are. Biomaterials are getting better across the spectrum of performance and they are catching up with leather. It will not be long before leather cannot hide behind an overwhelming superiority of performance, feel or looks and ignoring these advances is a mistake.
At the same time as the development is happening behind the scenes, the companies marketing these materials are working on their narrative in a silo of vegan terminology and what seems to be an assumption of anti-leather consumer perception, which may well be misplaced. However, if the leather industry allows this to continue, it will grow out of control and the greenwashing will only get worse. If you’re sitting around and expecting a blanket ban on the misuse of the word “leather”, or every brand to follow Kering and carefully guide its marketing against greenwashing, you will be waiting until the sun dies.
In ILM’s September/October 2022 issue, we interviewed Thomas Strebost, CEO of Heller-Leder, about the company’s work with biomaterials company Bolt Threads on its non-leather material production and the surprising benefits this has offered the company in affecting the narrative. Strebost explained that as a tanner, Heller-Leder was not only able to gain an understanding of the thinking on the other side, but also influence it in terms of marketing and product positioning, even going so far as to outright change the description of the product from “vegan leather” to “Unleather”.
Strebost said: “In addition, our willingness to co-develop and subsequently produce Mylo has also earned the respect and approval of Bolt's consortium partners. Of course, this gives us the opportunity to report about our comprehensive philosophy at Heller-Leder also concerning the production of leather.
“Through this partnership, we have been approached from many sides and have gained access to media and organisations that we would not have reached otherwise. Here, our core competence – leather – is always the focus of our communication.”
This is an example worth following. If the leather industry wants to thrive against the vegan narrative, it needs to do more than improve on sustainability and ethical sourcing. The sector must adapt to a shifting supply chain if it wants to succeed, and the fact is that biomaterials are encroaching on that supply chain. Cooperation is the way forward and working with biomaterials will not only offer ways to combat greenwashing, promote a leather-positive narrative and diversify businesses, but tanners may even learn a thing or two.
Tom Hogarth, Deputy Editor