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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Some years ago now, a leather industry friend of mine with whom I first worked in the early 1970s, sent me a package of small material samples with a suggestion that I meet and offer to help the founder. I arrived at the London Royal College of Art, meeting with founder of Ananas Anam, the makers of Piñatex.
Made from the cellulosic leaf fibre waste from pineapple plants, Piñatex is one of a number of new materials of essentially biological origin that are starting to fill the gap between leather and synthetics. Some of these materials have been analysed by the Independent Research and Testing house FILK in Germany, and the report is well worth reading.
This coincides with the recent announcements from BMW Mini and Volvo that they intend to follow Tesla and step away from leather, while Hermes will produce a model of its Victoria bag in mycelium-based Sylvania later this year. It is totally understandable that the leather industry is angry that the test results for these materials are not very good and objects to the obvious superb sustainability credentials of leather being ignored in the making of these decisions.
But getting angry is not a solution to a problem of historic proportions. A careful read of the report explains in brief terms how leather has been with us on the planet since the start, how its properties allowed it to be incredibly versatile, yet how in certain uses it has been replaced by alternate materials which have often been better, and why it still remains so difficult to copy. It is a very well written paper.
These facts were obvious over 50 years ago when the leather industry was panicked by the arrival of DuPont’s Corfam. The problems with comfort that stopped anyone from buying a second pair of Corfam shoes were not predicted, but gave the industry a reprieve. One that the Secretary of the ICT, Guy Reaks, was well aware of. For decades after, he implored the industry to do more innovation and marketing. Guy had joined the then British Leather Federation from the plastics industry in 1952 and became Secretary of the International Council of Tanners in 1997, holding that post until 1994 when Robert Sykes took over. He could foresee the threat of alternates.
From that time through until about 2017, with the exception of a few resolute deep thinking industry leaders, the leather industry remained tightly fragmented by region or sector and unwilling to invest in anything that resembled serious marketing. Sadly, by 2017, too much had happened. Not only were synthetics much better, livestock farming was under attack for both deforestation and its carbon footprint, and vegan lifestyles were accelerating in popularity. Fake news and confusing marketing were all the rage.
So, while being upset by losing market share to inferior materials and an amalgam of incorrect and dubious arguments is perfectly logical, expressing anger is not going to work as a response in the marketplace. In fact, it might work against leather by appearing to have something to hide.
Certainly, the nation-by-nation battle to get the term “leather” precisely defined in law, and subsequently enforced whenever the consumer is being deliberately mislead, must continue. But this is not enough.
When I arrived at the Royal College of Art, I met an experienced leather professional, Carmen Hijosa, doing a PhD in the textile department based on developing a sustainable material that would also be of positive good to the community in the Philippines, where she had been working. I was also interested to learn that as an external examiner, she had Michael Braungart, co-author of Cradle to Cradle.
When I look at the Piñatex business today, I see a group of people determined to make the best materials they can and do good along the way. Ananas Anam is now a B-Corporation and identifies in its annual report the income they give each year specifically to the previously impoverished farmers who now collect the leaves. One thing that the FILK paper misses is that for most such materials development continues. Some have passed
as “fit for purpose”, allowing commercialisation, but for most the work for further improvement has only intensified. A glance at what has already been achieved by the quite amazing mycelium world and by Piñatex in such a short time suggest a powerful future for them.
There is no doubt that either pre-patent confidentiality or straightforward opaqueness has led some of these materials to be very secretive about their actual structure and the environmental implications of their manufacture – energy and water consumption, plus waste produced are often thought to be very high. FILK notes some claim vegan credentials when they incorporate non-vegan elements such as leather board. These need to be called out in the correct forum.
Yet, quite a number of these materials are being developed along with some of our top tanners in Spain, Germany and Asia or are using some of the world’s cleverest technicians. There is a view that consumers who are vegan on purely ethical grounds should be offered well designed and well-made articles that fit their requirements and tanners have the best skills in understanding both the market and the manipulation of non-woven materials. Robert Kanigel explains in his book Faux Real how the Italian tanning industry cooperated to improve some of the best Japanese synthetics in the 1970s and 1980s, so this is nothing new, although today’s tanners have thought through the ethics of their strategies much more carefully.
Without question, leather remains the best material, and the arguments for it are founded on very good science. But in the very complicated modern world, this is not enough. We must innovate and market in ways that highlight the unique characteristics of leather and promote it positively as an exciting contemporary material, playing a role in the battle against climate change and the loss of biodiversity.
March 17, 2021
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