Setting ambitious goals is a good strategic element. Some might remember the idea of the “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal” or BHAG from the book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. It is a good way to galvanise a business with a long-term goal linked to core values and purpose.
One could think of many valid targets for leather: making leather without chromium, eliminating malpractice with labour, relentlessly prosecuting those misusing the term leather, achieving universal industry support for strong and continued marketing and getting everyone to be honest and responsible with waste management.
Perhaps we should adopt them all, we certainly end up talking about them a great deal. But there is one long term dream to that could pull much of this along: to make a long lasting, repairable all-leather shoe. You will quickly cry out that this is achieved with a Goodyear welt or with a simple barefoot moccasin, but the welt is a formal shoe, almost always sold at luxury prices, and the latter is too simple or uncomfortable for most. We need some new thinking.
Circular footwear manufacturing
Last Autumn, a call from Portugal alerted me to a new level of concern over the sustainability of footwear. Shoes have many small components, often involving an expanding materials list. Leather, textiles, coated fabrics, cork, wood, rubber, ethylene vinyl chloride, polyurethane and poly vinyl chloride, along with threads, glues, tacks and eyelets.
Thinking about footwear in terms of a circular economy soon becomes a nightmare. The start of life, the length of life, repair and end of life all need addressing. City folk who can afford to use welted leather footwear will know that rotating two or maybe three pairs – so they can dry out naturally from perspiration etc. – can extend their life beyond 20 years with each pair resoled as needed. American tanners attempted this in the mid-20th century, buying pairs that had the thickest leather soles to keep them free of the water routinely found on tannery floors.
But, as sole leather slipped out of use and life became more casual, relentless advancement has not always considered the consumer or the environment. For years, we have read of billions of shoes being sent annually to landfill as consumers were enticed to purchase and continuously replace ever cheaper footwear without a thought for daily maintenance or repair. The conscience of some consumers might be calmed by donating used footwear for charities to send to poor countries, but much of this appears to damage the development of local companies and uses badly managed landfill sites in emerging markets instead of those in more advanced areas.
An affordable range of all-leather footwear is required, made entirely free of chrome so no one needs worry about the disposal of the leather from the making through to end of life. Threads would have to be made of a natural biodegradable material like linen and any adhesives, eyelets and laces also considered, but most of the shoe could be leather, perhaps with wood or cork in certain areas. Naturally finished leather linings and footbeds will absorb perspiration rapidly and aid foot comfort, while a well-made sole may require a dry day for first wear to consolidate the fibres but should last a reasonable length of time. It sounds simple but there are big issues.
Leather soles can slip and make consumers nervous. Some are very thick while lightweight ones may not last. These are the 2020s, not the 1920s, so can we not re-examine the specifications?
Many footwear constructions have developed to make life easier for shoemakers – injection moulding and the like – so there would need to be a rethink of construction technologies and approaches. We should be manufacturing to meet consumer expectations of environmental responsibility as well as comfort, fit and value for money. This is not about making the shoemaker’s life easier. If their workforce is truly their main asset, they should demonstrate this by showing pride in the employment that they offer.
Value as cost per use
Given what we hear of unwanted hides and skins being thrown into landfill, there is an opportunity for further ranges of the “barebones” concept I introduced in a recent column. Footbeds, insoles and lining leather do not need the most beautiful skins in the world. Instead, with minimal treatment, they will offer the greatest comfort, and this should help hold the price down. The price must be competitive, but value must be explained via cost per use as much as the initial consumer outlay.
It might not be as grand a BHAG as President Kennedy committing to reach the moon, but it feels as important – making a shoe that will work for a minimum of 18 months with limited care and attention, is repairable and capable of being resoled twice to extend its life.
Then, instead of plastic makers telling us dishonestly how many cows they are saving, tanners can truthfully tell consumers that they are helping eliminate fossil fuel use while reducing damage to the climate and biodiversity. And consumers wearing comfortable, long lasting all-leather footwear will start to feel good – day after day.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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