Mike Redwood

Columnist

International Leather Maker


We have seen two excellent conventions over the last few weeks. Large audiences attended two-day events in Germany and the U.S. The agendas were emphatically relevant to the industry of today and well appreciated by attendees. This meant a heavy focus on bisphenols and ongoing issues with Chrome VI and PFAS.

Allied to this were quite a few papers linked to vital areas related to understanding and implementing a circular economy focus in the tannery world. Better approaches to raw material traceability, composting, machinery and new ways of separating fossil fuel carbon from everyday biocarbon in our testing.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to ask what our great leather chemists of the past – Davy, Procter, Wilson, Gustavson and others – would be thinking. Are we progressing fast enough? Are we ambitious enough about advancing the technology of leather?

Of course, margins are tight and we don’t have the concentration of tanneries in really wealthy situations keen to fund the quality of research we saw 100 years ago. But we are heavily weighted with clever commercial and technical management. Is it time to consider directing funds into supporting our few remaining institutions able to work long term and the scientists and researchers working in them?

Biomaterials

A good deal of time was also spent looking at (though perhaps worrying about is a better term) the new biomaterials. For me, these are more of necessity than a threat as we must find better materials to remove plastics from our clothing, footwear and automobiles. This could be an opportunity for tanners rather than a threat if a more cooperative attitude was adopted by tanners. It is noticeable that it is a clutch of the more far-sighted who have already gotten involved.

Biomaterials have not found the landscape easy to navigate, and only a couple of companies are making the grade so far. Leather has more valuable properties than they imagined and even meeting minimal specifications has been very difficult, and matching appearance and longevity impossible. Scaling and achieving a realistic pricing have created big problems, while those throwing bits of supermarket vegetable waste into a soup of polyurethane are destined to fail.

The task of matching the grain appearance of leather appears to be almost insurmountable. Trying to build it with finish is the process tanners are dismantling as it is really heavy top coating that has driven leather into the battle of commodities with plastic in the first place, leading to so many hides and skins being unused. So, when one major biomaterial company announced an indefinite “pause”, it spoke for much of a sector who are finding the summit is at a higher elevation than they ever imagined.

Perfect moment to redouble leather research

Therefore, this is the perfect moment for the tanning industry to redouble research. To move beyond chromium for tanning and other mundane matters to a new heights of leather science. Making responding to problems less of feature compared to breaking new ground.

When I had the honour to present the 2023 John Arthur Wilson Lecture at the American Leather Chemists Association, I covered this area. I said it would be incredible to see our few remaining research hubs across the globe obtaining the funding needed to increase their work.

The structure of our industry has changed so they would likely involve some of the new generation of talented consultants working in leather science. We need to see collaborative initiatives elevating leather to the next level: eliminating some of the difficult chemicals, making better use of the collagen that enters the tannery, finding new ways to stabilise the collagen structure for leather and imbuing leather with advanced properties that would make it a genuine competitor to other synthetic or biomaterial sheet materials.

Tanners should be willing to challenge conventions at every step, adapting to changing times as they have done with leather all through its long history.

We have lost many of our historic leather research centres but, around the world, there is still good work being done, giving us a worthy core to build upon while the many younger institutions find their feet. Now is the moment we need to help them to soar.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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