A unique material that needs to keep re-defining itself

Redwood Comment
Published:  07 April, 2021
Dr Mike Redwood

We talk a lot about leather being one of the oldest and most versatile materials, available to the first humans as a ‘waste product’ from their hunter gatherer diet, which included meat and milk.

But hides and skins did not jump off the back of dead animals and turn themselves accidentally into boats, tents, water carriers, jackets, shoes and ropes. Creative thinking was involved in how the hides could be adapted to have the right properties so that the only available sheet material could be effective in this multiplicity of end uses. At a time when nothing could be allowed to be defined as a waste product, innovative thinking was required.

So many alternative materials have come into use over the centuries that leather remains important today, only because as end uses have closed down or drastically reduced – think of parchment, drinking vessels, saddlery, sole leather – leather has always been able to redefine itself. Until now.

Never before have we seen large quantities of unsold hides being put into landfill. In the U.S., we have been told of numbers reaching 17%. Before, we always argued that every hide and skin that could be collected was turned into leather. Many people say the change has come about because of unfair competition from inferior materials being passed off to consumers as leather. For others, it is that sellers of hides feel no responsibility for the consequences of the huge volatility in hide prices we have seen in the last few years. Both are in some ways correct and need to be addressed. In reality, the two overlap as many of the vegan and animal-free claims have given brands an excuse to avoid the unpredictable and extreme price fluctuations of leather by shifting to more price stable alternatives, all triggered by the recent curious price surge.

Thank goodness our national associations have re-awakened in the last few years and are better able to fight back on our behalf. It is not an easy task and will take careful planning and engagement with many sectors of the industry. Some of this involves understanding local laws and taking to court any who make false claims, while another part is getting all stakeholders to recognise their decisions need to consider the long-term viability of the leather sector just as much as short term profit.

A mire of greenwash and self-centred claims
Tanners themselves need to consider two other overlapping areas, innovation and marketing. Both of these have barely scratched the surface of the tannery business, with only a few better-known major tanners demonstrating how valuable they can be. Sadly, the breadth and depth of much of the rest of our industry has been drowning in a mire of greenwash and self-centred claims that can at best mix consumer confusion with short-term gains. The debacle about chromium, the sloppy use of the words ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable’ are typical of a misunderstanding of strategic marketing and the true concepts of innovation. So much of the current struggle in our industry is self inflicted, and tanners will need real grit to dig themselves out.

We must have a global conversation with the new generations of consumers about the wonder and societal benefits of our material that is based only on supportable facts and is devoid of deliberately or carelessly used misleading terms. In his statements at the recent Leather Naturally AGM, Egbert Dikkers perfectly outlined the teams and structure put together with industry volunteers in education and communication sectors to achieve this end, along with the tools to help the industry make full use of them. Access and membership has been made much simpler, and there was an appeal for even greater industry cooperation. The associated annual report is freely available to interested parties.

The Leather Naturally Metcha campaign uses the fast evolving and never static digital tools of everyday life to create the first such programme to take positive messages of leather into the new environment of the under 40s; including those in Asia. The pandemic has accelerated these groups into leadership in the consumer purchasing we must see for future economic stability and growth.

With this come changing expectations from consumers which tanners must adapt their leathers to fit. The changing industry structure of the last few decades has disrupted the research and innovation side of leather and thrown much of the load back on the tanneries as supplier companies focus more on sustainability issues and compliance with stricter legal and voluntary rules on chemicals - this at a moment when the profile of customers and the way we balance work and life is transforming. End uses for leather have been relentlessly adjusting over the years and overlayed with fashion, luxury and experiential concepts.

Auditory, tactile, olfactory senses all come into play with silence sought in luxury automobiles and the correct absorption and reflection of sound being vital to achieve comfortable acoustics in spaces as varied as a lecture theatre, an elevator or a bedroom. In a world increasingly dominated by non-absorbing metal and glass, this is important as leather is increasingly being used in interior design.

As tanners, we are lucky to have a natural material capable of redefining itself so perfectly for so many end-uses with new demands on functionality. But we need to be hugely innovative to achieve each set of specifications while maintaining the perfect consistency now expected of a modern product. Doing this at the same time as maintaining the experiential features of the leather requires outstanding skill and relentless dedication.

The great majority of tanneries have no automation
Yet, Peter Mastelic, CEO of Hüni, notes that globally “the great majority of tanneries have no form of automation whatsoever” (see ILM March/ April 2021). This is despite tools like his Aquamix originally being introduced as long ago as 1968 when drum floats were measured by filling to the axle, and drainage was through a latticed door.

For innovation to be effective, tanneries must be able to quickly and effectively scale up from samples, and for the subsequent production to be as consistent as any competitive engineered product. Without the ability to accurately measure float size and similarly control many other areas of production, there is little chance of achieving adequate levels of reproducibility.

On top of this, we need to apply our creative thinking to the unwanted selections of raw material heading to landfill, using approaches that avoid making something that looks and feels like plastic. If leather is not made to be like leather, brands will accelerate the shift to synthetics, regardless of environmental issues.

Mike Redwood
April 7, 2021

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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