What's in a name?

The Redwood Blog
Published:  07 May, 2014

At the recent UK leather chemists (SLTC) conference at the University of Northampton the introduction of science from outside of the mainstream tanning technology made for an inspiring change. The long overdue need to find a better material than water to get chemicals into leather was the basis of the Procter Memorial Lecture. 

The tradition of not being allowed to ask questions could have usefully been replaced with a thirty minute semi-formal discussion led by a couple of members of the audience briefed to start it off. Just leaving a potentially ground-breaking concept hanging seems a dreadful waste.

One of the most talked about aspects of the year has been building new forms of "meat" and "leather" using protein building blocks of one sort or another. 3D printing is the most common form of additive manufacturing and Modern Meadow use 3D bioprinting technology to create and build up protein plates into a useful material. Dr Gabor Forgacs of Modern Meadow and his team have developed a really clever material and we wait to see how well it scales up and where it will fit in price wise. The leather industry must look forward to a lot of exceptionally clever materials entering our ecosystem. Backed by the Singularity University this is clearly potentially one of the best.

What is hard to understand is the need to justify the existence of a top performing material by attacking the meat and dairy industry. Leather may be a $50-$60 billion business so stealing a slice of it might sound attractive. Yet leather sits alongside a huge number of textile, plastic and other materials in endless possible uses. In fact, as leather moved from an essential to an optional component as new materials came along the timeless story of leather has been one of conceding end uses so that it now remains in those areas where its beauty and its performance offer real consumers value.

So alternate materials that can be engineered to perfectly meet specific needs from a functional point of view look like guaranteed winners. Consequently it is hard to understand why the makers adopt an anti-leather positioning to promote the product. Why not let it compete on its merits? While the world knows that agriculture will have to adapt to feed a growing world using figures from the now clearly discredited 2006 FAO report on livestock and other spurious material to suggest that leather is an inappropriate material for the consumer demeans the quality of the offer.

True synthetic leather

The conference thoroughly enjoyed the presentation from Modern Meadow and meeting their team. The science is incredibly impressive and the material will make a formidable addition to the market place. It is a perfect competitor, if you call it that, to have alongside leather.

The naming of the material causes a problem that our industry experts need to consider carefully. We rightly fight very hard against plastics that call themselves “synthetic leather”. They are a clear contradiction in terms allied with a very obvious attempt at “passing off”. Modern Meadow does not like the term “synthetic leather” given that it is made up of collagen building blocks. They feel they are building a “true” leather. For a tanner, as it was clear in the room, leather retains the origin of wholesome hide or skin.

This is the old BS standard definition of leather:

'Hide or skin with its original fibrous structure more or less intact, tanned to be imputrescible. The hair or wool may, or may not, have been removed. It is also made from a hide or skin that has been split into layers or segmented either before or after tanning.’

But if the highly advanced Modern Meadow article is not to be called leather, where does it fit on the spectrum?

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

Dr Gabor Forgacs