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A little over two years ago at the International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC4) in Chile, one of the most influential attendees was quoted saying “in the space of a single generation, human activity has severely damaged the ocean by catching fish faster than they can reproduce while also destroying their nurseries.”
At more or less the same time, researchers at the University of Ghent in Belgium estimated that Europeans who ate seafood regularly each ingest up to 11000 microplastics per year.
This highlights that we are currently facing a number of overlapping crises which often get fused into a single argument with oversimplified solutions out of which leather, and the livestock which provides over 95% of its raw material, usually comes out badly. Almost always this is as the result of a mosaic of bad science, misconceptions and deliberate selection of misleading facts being used to create a narrative which ends up saying “…and of course avoid meat and leather.”
Denigrating competitive materials is not effective marketing
Our business as a leather industry is to correct these errors, deliberate or not, loudly and clearly, yet, also, accurately - as we can only survive on integrity, honesty and transparency. Equally, we have to live with competition, and it is well recognised that negative campaigns that do no more than denigrate competitive materials make for ineffective marketing.
In terms of what is happening in our oceans, we are told by handbag makers such as the very competent team at Stella McCartney - we may not like their language on animals and leather, but they do know a lot about the science of alternative materials - that the microplastic issue created from coated “synthetic leathers” is minimal and we should worry more about areas such as fleeces and single use plastic items. There is a certain validity in this, except that anyone observing wear in coated textiles notes that at key wear points it occurs surprisingly quickly and the debris soon gets vacuumed into landfill and drains. Even without use and the associated wear, time alone, helped by warmth and humidity, eats at the bond holding the plastic, and soon the top coat starts to separate and disintegrate.
Biomaterials will be increasingly important alongside leather
Given that the world population is steadily rising while livestock growth has probably passed its peak, there continues to be a need for alternate materials. Consequently, the new “biomaterials” that we are starting to see are important to help fill this market, and to eat into the horrendous volume of PU coated textiles which have tried to gain traction as “synthetic” leather and are now having a reboot as “vegan” leather. This new approach from coated plastic is even to be found in big, previously respected, stores such as Marks and Spencer. I hope they are being legally and morally challenged on this.
I have seen some social media complaints about the bio-based alternates as being loaded with PU and viewed as no better than coated materials. It is certainly true that technological transparency has not been the most obvious aspect of some of these materials as they have hidden behind patent protection set up to attract investment funds. As a result, we are far from sure of the environmental credentials of most of the bio-based materials and our industry organisations should be collecting materials, studying and testing them, so we can learn a little more.
In general, these new bio materials are well thought out and run by teams with a lot of integrity. The relationships many are building with some of our best tanneries and technicians is evidence of this, and in many ways supports the fact that we should be working with them rather than going on the offensive. There certainly seems little wisdom in an all-out attack on these biologically produced materials where we have evidence of a serious effort being made to make them as environmentally friendly as possible. Quite often where they use some PU, the volumes are minimal and the process interim while they lead the field in research for better alternatives – alternatives the leather industry will doubtless promptly adopt.
For let us be quite clear. We have overfished the seas and arguments we are seeing around Britain leaving the EU, in the South Atlantic and elsewhere are not offering a solution but highlighting our failures. We should still have 50 million buffalo roaming the plains of America giving us high quality meat loaded with natural “omegas” and other things that do us good. They have been lost but our current livestock, properly managed, provides for healthy balanced diets, biodiversity and in most cases long term carbon dioxide sequestration. So the leather industry is in a better place than much else on the planet as a sustainable, renewable resource. It needs to be kept there, supported by supplementary material which may not perfectly match the durability, repairability and longevity of leather, but is hugely better than plastic.
February 25, 2020
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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