I have now discovered another use of the term when recently asked to look for “networks of usage, reference and perspective” in language. To consider “interrelated words and references” in “a cluster”, and to heed “the explicit but as often implicit connections which people [are] making”.

I had not thought about this before and apparently it comes from a 1976 book, Keywords, by Raymond Williams which was actually mostly about politics. Applying it to the leather industry is fascinating. As tanners, we talk about leather in terms such as “elegant”, “high performance”, “sustainable” and “responsibly manufactured”, while those who want to oppose leather use “dirty”, “toxic”, “polluting” and “unsustainable”. It is very distinct how one word quickly triggers many images and references. That is before you move into the animals’ rights segment with all the emotional words to do with cruelty.

Articles that come from livestock

For those attacking leather for reasons of animal rights there is an alternate list of connected words they need to consider: candles, toothpaste, lipstick, condoms, crayons, soaps and detergents, bicycle tyres, plastic bags, body creams, eye makeups, foundations, shaving creams, jet fuel, antifreeze, hydraulic brake fluids, insulin drugs, jam, jellies, bio-diesel, marshmallow, insulin for diabetics, “Haribos”, ice cream, sausage skins, exfoliants, anti-wrinkle products, blood thinners and medicine for osteoarthritis.

This apparently unconnected set is no more than a sample list of the things which are, or most frequently are, made from livestock, especially but not exclusively cattle. While farmers do not keep livestock for other reasons than meat and dairy products only around 60-70% of the cattle carcass is sold as meat. The rest is used for many other things. Basic tallow and gelatine are well known but where they and other items end up is usually overlooked. For example, they provide chemicals such as glycerine or stearic acid which are either difficult or expensive to obtain from alternative sources, or need to come from unsatisfactory sources such as palm oil plantations. Both are major ingredients.

Tibetan yak

Since the beginning of society, we have depended on livestock for a wide range of materials. Today, the Tibetan Yak retains much of that basic history and Jeff Hays’ “FactsandDetails.com” website explains it in great detail. Tibetan yaks carry goods, possessions and household goods; they provide food and hair that can be made into tents, clothes, blankets and other products. Some nomads ride on their yaks and some farmers use yaks to plough their plots of land. Yak dung is used for burning as there are no trees. The skin with hair on is made into capes, coats and hats. The hide provides leather for boots and the soles of shoes. Yak meat is eaten. Yak milk is made into butter – which is put in tea and used to light lamps – and cheese and other dairy products. Yak hide is used for boats – as I was astonished to see for myself when I took a taxi along the river from the airport to town. The yak heart is used in Tibetan medicine. The bones are made into glue. There is even such a thing as yak cashmere.

Language battleground

In the UK, these days language has become a crucial political battleground. Social media is where we see it most with leather. The words being used against animal products and leather are weighted with menace and denigration of buyers and users. No word is left hanging alone: they are deployed as a team.

We need to remind all consumers that livestock is about a lot more than only meat, milk and leather. It is a natural resource which helped the world survive a history of scarce resources: a time which is coming again as our population increases along with our expectations and consumption. Replacing animal products with synthetic ones based on fossil fuels will not work, nor will looking for plant solutions if it involves destroying forests (such as Brazilian soya found, unlabelled, in tofu and soy milk sold in US supermarkets).

As we look back on 2017 and into 2018 we must move from defending leather into promoting it. We need to recognise that we are not alone, that huge numbers of producers and consumers are with us. We need to use the power of language, of our words to talk about the positives of livestock and leather to counter the menace of false narratives.

Mike Redwood

20th December 2017


Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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