The leather industry’s difficult relationship with the media

Worldwide
Published:  05 February, 2021
Credit: Matthew Guay

The leather industry’s relationship with the media, and by that I am mainly referring to mainstream media, and more recently social media, has long been a strained one. Some of it is self-inflicted, it has to be said, with the sector’s passive stance in the past having opened the floodgates to journalists, broadcasters and other unvetted publicists to spout one-sided, badly researched propaganda and misinformation against leather.

Moreover, lobby groups with often questionable agendas also frequently attack leather’s image as part of their assaults against meat consumption and animal derived products. But even when the industry has been trying to put out a more positive message, the information has frequently been ignored at best and misconstrued or distorted at worst. Many of us will have stories and examples where industry representatives have tried to be helpful, provided information or granted interview requests, only to be badly misrepresented and their quotes cut or fragmented so badly, that no grain of truth was left.

It is fair to say that the industry and many of its prominent players have been burned and that there is - understandably – a degree of trepidation about engaging with media representatives outside of the leather industry. I get the apprehension, I do, but I can’t help but think that the alternative, namely, not to engage and to keep ourselves to ourselves, is worse.

NGOs are looking at the leather supply chain

Last week, ILM was approached by a researcher for an NGO who is investigating leather supply chains and traceability systems in the automotive industry and possible links with deforestation for an upcoming article. The journalist asked whether we could put her in touch with relevant companies to get some first-had commentary. Unlike many NGOs, pressure groups and media outlets who tend to just publish articles without reaching out to our industry, I noted it as a very positive step that this journalist took the time and effort to reach out. Her previous articles on the leather industry have been fair and balanced, and after careful consideration, we forwarded her request so relevant companies can choose to respond – or not. It is, of course, completely up to them to decide whether they want to engage with this report and the journalist’s research. But I for one feel that it is very important for the leather industry, despite or because of past bad experiences, to continue to communicate and engage. If transparency is the overarching goal of our industry, then this starts with open communication, even if it means taking a risk. There will always be the danger of misrepresentation, but if we want to be seen that we have nothing to hide, then indeed, we can’t hide behind corporate walls and choose to remain passive and silent, especially when the industry is given the opportunity and platform to have its say and to put its side of the argument across. We have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk and complain if we are being attacked. Remaining silent is giving those who mean the leather industry harm automatic validation of their claims, and surely this cannot be the right path for an industry that is in such need of a better image and at its core, has a positive story to tell.

Links with deforestation

Elements of the automotive leather sector in particular have been making negative headlines recently, not least for the suggested links to deforestation, but also thanks to more and more carmakers succumbing to the false perception of fake, synthetic and vegan interior offers, Tesla being a prime example. This week Mini announced that it will no longer offer leather upholstery options in future models, with the carmaker’s Head of Design, Oliver Heilmer, stating that the brand no longer needs leather because it does not believe it is sustainable and that they are “totally convinced that we will have modern and high-value products without leather". Instead, Mini is planning to offer fabric covered seats and leather alternatives in the future. It is clearly another case of car manufacturers having been influenced by prejudice and ignorance of the definition of what is a sustainable product, and it goes to show how many obstacles the leather industry still has to overcome to get through to these brands. Cynics will also point out that decontenting of leather is often a smokescreen to cut costs by brands and OEMs who are using the vegan label to mislead and confuse the consumer.

We need engagement and communication more than ever (by the way, ILM has reached out to Mini for a statement as to why it considers fossil-fuel derived alternatives or part recycled plastic as more sustainable than leather; we will update once and if we receive a response). Funnily enough, on the other end of the scale, Chinese premium electric carmaker Polestar, owned by Geely, is said to have reversed its no-leather policy after just over a year since it announced a move to ‘vegan alternatives’ - which says everything about how sustainable, and commercially viable, the decision to not use leather was in the first place.

In a straw poll conducted at the ILM Digital Automotive Leather Supply Chain forum in December last year, the high-profile audience consisting of luxury OEMs, Tier 1 suppliers, tanners, raw material suppliers, chemical companies, brands and associations, was unanimous in its consensus that leather has a bright future in the automotive sector. It was an encouraging sign after the difficult challenges of 2020 and against the backdrop of continued anti-leather sentiments. But this is no time for complacency – if leather is to have a bright future indeed, whether in automotive or elsewhere, we must make sure that we fight for it. And that means ongoing communication with the media. 

Isabella Griffiths, Editor

isabella@edifydigitalmedia.com