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Everyone has heard the story of the boiling frog where it sits in a pan of water without recognising that it was slowly getting warmer and stays complacent until the water is too hot, and it is too late. I often wonder about the leather industry at the start of the 20th century when technological changes such as the use of electricity, the internal combustion engine and the arrival of chrome tanning were all happening at once.
The leather industry did adjust to these changes, but it was slowly and with difficulty. Even in the late 1960s, when Barrow Hepburn appointed me to a role in their chrome tanning “upper leather” division, it was seen as a “new-fangled” business in a company whose history was entirely about vegetable processing.
Something similar happened at the end of the 20th century. Environmental and water authorities were strengthening around the world, the World Bank and the main development agencies decided that tanning was a good industry to support in emerging markets regardless of raw material availability, some chemical companies began promoting “chrome free” systems with scaremongering stories about CrVI, and Peta began an attack on fur that soon spilled over to leather.
In the same way as 100 years before, the leather industry response was slow and incomplete, leaving us today with a lot of unfinished business. Certainly, the changes going on were overwhelming and the industry was very fragmented by geography, raw material type, and market segment so the lack of response was perhaps understandable. Thinking about consumers and branding were not concepts high in the mind in the nineties and fighting the false claims of PETA was felt only likely to give more air to an unwarranted discussion.
Fighting deeply ingrained attitudes
Yet this slow approach is not without consequences. Across the world the leather industry is starting to fight back, but the anti-leather arguments have been building up, and are deeply ingrained in many areas. Last week in Milan, a presentation was given by Cotance on the Product Footprint Category Rules agreed earlier this year by the EU. These establish that hides and skins are not a determining reason for keeping livestock and so dramatically reduce the environmental elements that can be carried forward from livestock rearing into leather. An excellent outcome to an outstanding piece of work by the Cotance team.
Yet making this truly work for the leather industry is going to involve a lot of industry effort. Many major brands and supporting businesses enjoy categorising leather as a “bad material”, when we have known for years it is one of the best. A recent Wired magazine article on HP’s new leather computer achieved what they considered balance by talking about the 2017 report from The Boston Consulting Group and Global Fashion Agenda which calculates that “cow leather, by far, has the most environmental impact from “cradle to gate.””
Looking at the reference documents in this report which compares leather to synthetics, cotton, and polyester it appears (it is not 100% clear) that leather is condemned because of the cow, that had been reared for meat or milk. By the looks of it, leather would come out well against other materials without this, and of course it would win hands down based on longevity and possible reuse at the end of life on the article. There are now a multitude of such supposedly objective and authoritative documents that unfairly pronounce leather as the worst material to use.
I applaud the head of product management at HP, Josephine Tan, for making all the right points when interrogated by the magazine. Their leather is a by-product of the meat industry, it is durable, had a great feel and gives the computer a premium quality. And, she was quoted saying “the laptop is deconstructible, so that the leather can actually be re-used when a customer has decided to move on from the laptop”.
The problem is that there is not enough of this sort of comment around. Let us make sure the new Leather Naturally promotional programme presented recently in Shanghai, Chicago and Milan can get underway fast to help spread it. We need that relentless, creative, positive, truthful messaging to counterbalance the nonsense under which consumers are sinking.
Dr Mike Redwood
October 3, 2018
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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