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Something old and something new. All through history leather has survived the loss of end uses. It seems to have been in decline for 2,000 years or more.
The Chinese invented paper many centuries before it came to Europe and that replaced parchment. Metal made for stronger armour. Glass and pottery made leather drinking vessels less useful, and modern technical textiles have turned mainstream sectors like chamois into niche activities. Leather in garments is mostly now about fashion rather than staying warm and dry.
Yet, leather still remains relevant and, as I have often said in these columns, increasingly underrated as a sustainable material. Just this week I came across an old quote from 2011 by Pete Lankford, design director for Timberland Boot Company, talking about leather and synthetics in footwear from an environmental standpoint. ”Leather wins hands down over anything you can think of", says Lankford. “If you can buy a pair of boots that last twice as long as a synthetic alternative, you'll end up with half the environmental impact in the long run”.*
So here is an old quote that supports our current thinking, and at a time when the leather industry is continuing to make the improvement of its processes a routine target to make leather even better. Certainly, Lankford is not one who pretends that leather is perfect; he just looks objectively at the facts.
Yet, the new term that entered the leather lexicon for me this week is a very disturbing one from the automobile industry. It is the word “decontenting”. As tanners we know all about substitution and, given a level playing field, leather will fight its corner with any substitute. Decontenting is different as it is much more about the replacement of leather in the car by stealth, without telling the consumer.
Inside the EU there is a standard, which defines the proportion of leather that a car must have to be sold as a leather interior, but in the rest of the world it is a free-for-all to confuse. Even in the EU there is a lot of loose vocabulary in the promotion of plastics in many sectors, let alone automobiles. All of this is intended to confuse the consumer as the complexity in price structures and terminology have become more frequent tools to confuse well intentioned consumers into purchasing something they, otherwise, would not.
This is criminal, given that recent reports indicate that 70% of all plastic ends in landfill, do not degrade and that the weight of plastic in our oceans will be greater than the weight of all the fish by 2050. Plastic-petroleum packaging litters our cities, fields, beaches, and oceans, and is not biodegradable.
In leather, we have a prime material, good for the consumer and for the planet. We must not let it lose its place to a material that offers no real benefits other than cheapness and so many huge environmental issues. Especially not when sold by such an awful technique as “decontenting”.
27th January 2016
*Blue Marble Is Fake Leather Really More Eco-Friendly Than Real? — By Kate Sheppard. Jan. 24, 2011
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