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When ‘Cradle-to-Cradle: Remaking the way we make things’ was first published by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, their approach to a circular economy was promoted as a major breakthrough. Indeed, at the time, the jump from a linear economy based on making, using and disposing was a huge step, given that individual consumption was growing exponentially, as was the global population.
This creates a certain problem for leather as we tan hides and skins to make them durable, and not to promptly break down into technical (chemical) and organic nutrients, albeit for many leathers such as chrome tanned it can be done. In fact, some of our colleagues are keen that, as an industry, we work against putting chrome tanned leather into landfill and always collect finished articles, impractical as it seems, to separate out any chromium.
There is, however, an underlying point in circular economy thinking that makes it valid to go back to the initial thinking that came two decades before the Cradle-to-Cradle book, via a Swiss architect who graduated in the seventies and wrote a prize-winning paper in 1982. This was Walter Stahel, and he has been updating his thoughts more recently. He notes:
“Circular-economy business models fall in two groups: those that foster reuse and extend service life through repair, remanufacture, upgrades and retrofits; and those that turn old goods into as-new resources by recycling the materials”.
A perfect example of what happened 400 years ago
For leather, the idea of turning “old goods into as-new resources” can work but is complex. We have seen it happen in areas like airline seating, where used leather has been turned into handbags and small leather goods but is generally difficult. On the other hand, traditionally, leather items were kept looked after and repaired when needed. Leather bottles and drinking vessels are great historic examples. You find them with the owners’ initials on, with those of the son below. They routinely passed down through the generations. Walk down the staircase at the wonderful new Leathersellers Hall in London and you will see a perfect example of what happened 400 years ago when a bottle did eventually get damaged. Always they were repurposed and the most common, as with this one, was as a salt holder hung by the fireplace near the cooking pot.
Leather items made today, even ones in the fashion sector, are recognised as being durable. It is unusual for the leather itself to wear out. Problems normally arise with threads and zips rather than with the leather. In quite a few products the evolving look of the leather as it is handled and used is viewed as improving and developing the character.
At the more expensive end of the market, but not necessarily only in the luxury sector, many leather items are handed down the generations. Hand bags, brief cases and quite a wide range of leather goods. I was given a leather bicycle saddle some years ago and I know my children are lining up for it. At 3,000 miles, it is hardly worn in.
Longevity is an environmental winner
So, leather fits perfectly into the circular pattern of taking care, repairing, and reusing items. Even in footwear, increasingly leather is going into price brackets where repair makes sense. And whatever the category, leather offers longer life, measured in years, which hugely reduces the need to pull out new raw materials from the oil wells or other sources.
Equally, this approach avoids the complexity of full recycling which involves the use of energy and chemicals, more packaging and selling costs, plus a lot of transportation costs. Keeping hold of items for longer, taking minimal care of them and repairing them is a far better route for society. It also employs a lot of people. Research suggests that a society that moves towards repairing goods rather than disposing of them will employ 4% of their workforce, all in jobs where robots offer little competition.
Back in the 1980s on a trip to New York, I bought a Coach brief case. It had a number inside I had to register with them, for which I got a guarantee of free lifetime repair. I use the bag regularly still, but it after more than thirty years it has never had to go back for repair. Leather lasts.
Dr Mike Redwood
June 5, 2018
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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