Why is the image of leather so important?

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Published:  17 November, 2022
Credit: Wollsdorf Leather

Dr Luis Zugno discusses why it is important for the leather sector to present itself in the right way – as a safe and responsible industry.

This year, Leather Naturally launched the Modern Cow Leather Guide with the objective to set image and content standards that represent safe, compliant and responsible leathermaking. Each picture was properly selected from the best tanneries to represent the modern leather industry. This is a unique publication.

Every day, we observe very good images and videos related to modern leathermaking.  Unfortunately, not all the tanneries are modern, and the striking realistic bad images showing unsafe working conditions, dirt, pollution, degradation and simple primitive technologies of our industry have much more of an effect (in the minds of the public) than the good images.

When I started my career, tanners resembled “tough” people – powerful, stubborn, indestructible and heavy drinkers. Pickle control was made by biting a piece of hide (resulting in semi-dissolved front teeth) as they did not trust the pH paper or liquid indicator. Safety gloves were a no-no; no tanner would wear a glove and so had damaged, discoloured hands from sulphide, dyes and other nasty chemicals.

These examples are rare today but, unfortunately, we do still have 20th and 19th-century leathermaking places. Our industry has mostly evolved to be more professional and safer. Huge improvements have been made relating to chemical restrictions (mercury, cadmium, lead, toxic chlorinated solvents, whale oil, PCP, DMF, etc.), occupational hygiene, safety and environmental controls. The old “tough” tanners were replaced by responsible professionals, many of whom today are engineers, chemists and biochemists.

It is unfortunate that, even with all these improvements, we still observe media and social media postings and images of our 20th and 19th-century industry every day. Some people proudly post them, like a video showing leather dyeing with bare hands in a 200-litre barrel, handling wet-blue without gloves and shoes or an unsafe bamboo ladder near a rotating drum with exposed motor belts.

It is not only tannery images that are to blame. Sometimes schools, chemical companies, laboratories, institutes and artisans also post bad images. It is also a fact that the magazines, journals, scientific publications and leaflets produced by editors also need to be critical of their image selections.

It’s time to change

We need your help (everyone connected to and earning a living from the leather supply chain)  by stopping the publication of pictures and videos that do not represent a safe, compliant and responsible leather industry. I urge everyone to stop “liking” and reposting this type of negative media. Why is this important? Because, modern leathermaking is safe and highly regulated the same as any other industry.

To achieve this discipline, controls, money, audits, commitment and work are needed to have proper incoming materials, proper and safe processing and finally to produce a compliant leather while meeting all the regulatory requirements on the wastes. It is vital that the image of these tanneries should not be damaged by the image of non-compliant tanneries. It is time to give the proper value to a modern 21st-century tanning industry.

Leather Naturally is supporting and motivating responsible and safe leather making. In 2023, we will publish another work that will showcase the state-of-the-art leather industry with an overview of the best technologies available. Stay tuned and keep tanning!

Dr Luis Zugno is a Leather Naturally Management Board Member, Global Innovation Manager at Buckman and IULTCS Executive Secretary.