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The other day, my nine-year-old daughter and I were browsing online stores to search for some winter boots for her. My girl had a very specific idea of what she wanted (a chunky, ankle-length hiking boot style, in case you were wondering), and we checked the usual big brand stores on the lookout for something suitable. When I dismissed a number of shoes she liked because they were not leather, she protested: “But Mummy, leather is from dead animals. That’s bad. I don’t want leather!”
I have to admit that I was a little taken aback. It was not so much the fact that my daughter snubbed my genuine leather choices for some horrible – albeit ‘hip’ looking – plastics and clearly had no real concept or appreciation for leather as a material (despite growing up in a household where leather is very much valued and notwithstanding the fact that all her other shoes are leather). We know that the younger generations are lacking that connection with leather; to be fair, not even just with leather, but with most materials, especially where they come from and how they are produced. What matters to them above all is that the things they wear look a certain way and fit the trends that are prevalent among their peers.
No, what really surprised me was that clearly someone somewhere – whether that was a teacher at school or friends or a friend’s parent – must have explicitly told her that leather is bad because it comes from (dead) animals. Here it was again, that frustrating and deceptive equation between ‘dead animals=leather=bad material’. Obviously, working in the leather industry, I am sensitised to the bias that exists from certain interest groups and within society, but I did not realise that this was already trickling down to kids as young as my daughter.
This really got me thinking about how, as an industry, we can instil that appreciation for leather in kids. Granted, there is widespread consensus and acknowledgement within the leather sector that we need to reach young people, and campaigns such as Metcha are doing a great job in this respect. But perhaps we need to start even earlier, not just with late teens and young adults, but indeed with children, preferably at school, and convey much sooner the virtues of leather, so their open minds cannot be hijacked by vegan agendas or just plain ignorance and misinformation, and before it is too late.
At the recent Sustainable Leather Forum, held in Paris in September and hosted by the Conseil National du Cuir (CNC), Emmanuel Pommier, Managing Director of the Artisanal Leather Goods and Saddlery section at French luxury fashion house Hermès, gave one of the keynote speeches in which he provided an update on the Manufacto Skills Factory, which has been run by the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès since 2016. Designed to introduce school children to craftsmanship and artisanal trades such as joinery, fine leatherwork, saddlery / upholstery and plaster, the project has by now involved more than 1100 school-aged children in France. Split into twelve two-hour sessions over the course of the school year and guided by three skilled group leaders - an artisan, an assistant and a teacher - pupils from primary, middle and high schools create their own decorative objects through a series of practical, technical workshops, from raw material to finished product. They get to learn and experience the value of craftsmanship and a manual trade as well as the handling and properties of different materials and textures, all in an educational, pleasurable and gratifying process. A visit to respective ‘real-life’ workshops, including Hermes’, rounds off the experience.
Credit: Benoît Teillet / Fondation d’entreprise Hermès
This approach makes a lot of sense to me. While there are other initiatives with a similar goal dotted around the globe, such as when the organisers of the Lineapelle trade show in Milan invite young people to visit and learn about leather, we need more. These projects should not be the exception, they should be the norm, so we can effectively educate young kids about the benefits of leather and nurture a next generation of consumers who are educated about different materials and will not fall for the ridiculous and oversimplified ‘leather is bad’ propaganda. We need to bring leather to schools, let pupils handle the texture, explain where it comes from and why it is a good thing, contrast it to synthetics etc., and everyone, from tanners to brands, needs to play a more active part.
Obviously, I took the opportunity to educate my daughter and explain to her the difference between leather and fossil-fuel derived plastics and the environmental benefits of the former over the latter, which resonated with her. In the end, we settled on some genuine leather boots which appeased the requirements of both a fashion-conscious pre-teen and her quality-conscious Mum.
As a side note though, it really astonishes me every time I shop for my kids just how difficult it is to find genuine leather footwear among a sea of disposable synthetics. Wasn’t good-quality leather footwear for kids once the holy grail? It certainly was when I was growing up, and I remember my mother always making sure I had real leather shoes – which is probably where my love for the material stems from and why this is so important to me to this day when it comes to my own kids.
Nowadays, the market is flooded with cheap plastics, but – and this is a big but - they tick all the trend boxes and are therefore a lot more desirable in young consumers’ minds compared to the genuine leather alternatives, which, in the case of kids footwear, tend to be ‘boring’, as my daughter would say, classic styles. While people of a ‘certain age’, and I include myself in that, can appreciate a classic, timeless design, this is not the case for the kids and young people of today. Therefore, for leather goods to remain attractive to them, they need to appeal not only in terms of the sustainable and environmental credentials, but they also need to cut it in the style stakes, or we are fighting a losing battle. Sustainability is increasingly important to young consumers, and leather’s narrative around that is certainly fitting and key, but nobody will buy a pair of shoes, a handbag or a leather sofa if it looks rubbish, especially not when the competition from alternative materials is trendy and cool.
Hopefully, I have converted my daughter once and for all to leather – but there is a whole generation of kids to be convinced, too. We certainly have our work cut out.
Isabella Griffiths, Editor