Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without

Redwood Comment
Published:  25 March, 2020
Dr Mike Redwood

As the world is impacted by a virus whose origins and spread has been a consequence of globalisation, it is individual countries which have been acting to date, and responding one by one to the situation it finds itself in. While the factories of much of China return to work and the shops there reopen, Europe and the USA are shutting both as I write.

This then is an enforced pause across an industry where most companies are quite tightly immersed in an international network of suppliers, customers and other stakeholders. It is a moment like the financial crisis where survival is the most important task, but of course more than that since we have to fight for not only financial health but also the human health of all involved in our business.

At the same time this enforced pause should be a time for deeper reflection, about what we as a leather industry should look like for the long term. Throughout history, leather has been one of the top three industries globally, and its foundation as a user of the hides and skins of animals that provide society with essential food means that it has a long existence in every country in the world. We have provided the material society required and the jobs they needed to employ growing populations and permit development through pulling people out of poverty.

While our history is coloured by tales of smell and dirt, and the discomfort of some about handling dead animals, we have in fact been a leader in the concepts of biotechnology, of craftsmanship as an escape from poverty and of that level of innovation which keeps a versatile raw material relevant in a changing world. If we can break through a veneer of significant but rather superficial negatives, the leather industry has a lot to be proud of.

After this crisis we need a planet that consumes with greater care
Talking with a friend in Spain this week, two thoughts came to the table. After this crisis, we need a planet that consumes with greater care and respects our environment better. The leather industry is well placed to lead in this; it is in our DNA. Yet, in the rush of commercialisation, of beating our competitors, some of the elements have slipped.

In the use of resources, the fact that we use an otherwise unwanted material from the meat and dairy business is a clear advantage and one that everyone in the industry is correctly proclaiming loudly. Yet, I do not think we should call it a waste product. Hides and skins are a good source of protein and if they cannot be used for leather; we should be party to helping them into other end uses such as gelatine or casings. Perhaps there is a case that the bottom ten percent of our raw material should go in that direction to limit the damaging commodity aspect of the leather industry. Added to that, our links to the farming community are vital, and far more than merely a tick in the traceability box. We know we get better leather with better husbandry, and we should be watching and forming judgments about how that husbandry fits in to a proper social and environmental policy.

Walter Stahel, in his 2019 book The Circular Economy starts with this ancient maxim from New England:

Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.

Throughout history, this has been the case with leather, be it used in boats, drinking vessels, clothing, footwear, bags or most other of the multitudinous things made with leather. The National Leather Collection recently wrote an essay on it , noting how old bottles would be repaired or repurposed to hold other things like candles or salt. Things they have in their collection from hundreds of years ago show evidence of adaptation and patching up for longer life. Leather rarely wears out, and where it does, as in the soles of shoes, it can be replaced. In leather articles it is more often stitching, zips or linings that wear out.

Shoe

This period of closed stores will inevitably lead us to looking through our wardrobes and bring out rarely used items. I have recently unearthed a pair of shoes some 15 years old. They are in perfect condition apart from that part of the lining made of a PU coated textile. The PU has disintegrated completely. Luckily, its textile base has maintained its integrity, so the shoes are perfectly serviceable with a good life ahead, but so often it is these components that prematurely lead to end of life.

Designers must build on the longevity of leather
There is a message here. If tanners make a material to last, we must teach designers to create articles that build on that feature and can be repaired and refurbished. The choice of other materials and the design itself must take these points into consideration. We have an education task to do with our customers here, one that will reduce the new resources needed from the planet and at the same time provide employment.

Stahel makes the point that producing basic goods like cement or steel use up 75% of the energy needed, while the actual construction or the cars use only 25%. With labour, it is the reverse. Basic goods employ far fewer people than the manufacture of the articles made from them. The leather industry is no different, a tannery’s leather employs many multiples of its employees in the production of shoes, gloves, garments and bags and can keep many more involved in repair and refurbishment. If you give a lifelong guarantee on the goods you sell, you are participating in the Circular Economy according to Stahel.

If society can replace the manufacture of new goods with this reuse, repair and refurbishment approach, then energy and new resource consumption gets replaced by human capital in local workshops in areas that are often depleted of work opportunities by recent industrial changes. One can think further and look at possible technological or fashion transformations that might be possible with returned goods. Here, our creativity needs to shine.

In recent years, all sectors of the leather industry have focused on consumption, even the luxury goods industry, where quality and perfection have been the historic drivers, appear to have moved to commercial positioning of chasing consumer to buy more and more. Their slow adaptation to the pre-used sector has been strictly a reaction as it would appear in quite a lot of the “sustainability” thinking that we see. The individuals involved may be very well intentioned, but a reset is required and the leather industry should be in the forefront.

Mike Redwood
March 25, 2020

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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