We need more articles like the Josef Heinen one, more campaigns like Leather is My Job and more of us all as individuals replying directly to the comments we see online or in the press that denigrate leather unfairly. It is not enough to see something and send a message to demand someone else “deals with it” – although it is probably important they be made aware of it. It is time for all of us individually to start speaking out.

When we fight back against extreme organisations complaining unfairly about arsenic tanning and killing cows for leather, we often get many hundreds of responses. Bodies like PETA have their members geared up and ready to involve themselves in online debates. For leather one word from a central body alone is not enough to combat this. We must support it en masse by spreading the news widely.

We must not descend to their level
Equally, we must be careful what we write. Our facts need to be correct; our science should be sound and we should not denigrate the competition without great care. Some of the comments being made on social media might be classed as a little ‘careless’. It is easy to slip into a ‘sales speak’ and forget that terms like ‘sustainable’, ‘organic’ and ‘biodegradable’ do require defining. Getting ourselves into Greenwash or bad definitions when we complain about the promotion of plastic materials being called “leather” or claimed as environmentally superior defeats the object. We must not descend to their level.

In the article Josef Heinen talks about vegetable tanning as being unsuited for many shoe uppers. Arguing about another tanning sector is a delicate thing to do, but it does appear the author has tried hard, but is clearly unhappy about the negative opinions being held about chromium tanning and the perceived view (in some influential circles) that only vegetable tanning meets the definitions of “sustainable, organic, biodegrable”.

It can be fairly argued that all leather that has been responsibly manufactured is sustainable, and accepting that whilst leather is essentially collagen and therefore organic, all (including vegetable tanned) leather does receive significant treatment with inorganic compounds. I know of no leather that can be called biodegradable, but the very longevity of leather is one reason why we can argue for sustainability, because leather lasts longer than other materials and most leather articles can be repaired. This is the basis of the circular economy and one of the wonderful aspects about leather – and the reason that so much of our history can be told via leather artefacts in Museums.

What is clear is that vegetable tannages have a role to play, as does chromium and other tanning methods, and indeed some clever mixes with both chrome retan and vegetable retan. Much of the beauty of the patina of the surface of leather shines through strongest with vegetable tanning, so we owe a lot to vegetable tanned leather and it still serves the industry well. Unlike sometimes in the past, though, we would want to be sure that the tan came from a properly managed resource that was not decimating the environment in the way wholesale cutting of oak, mangrove and hemlock – to name just a few – did in the past.

It is rather depressing to think that a lot of the prejudice against chromium comes from a few of the German chemical companies promoting their “wet white” directly to the brands in the 1990s. It was well intentioned, but as so often, ended with unexpected consequences, not least because none of the new tannages can even now match the efficiency of chrome tanning, nor allow the tanner to develop performance attributes to the same degree. At the moment well made chrome tanned leather is probably still the best, and most effective tanning method, but its future is uncertain only because our industry started to talk it down, and the outside world joined in.

There is a lesson in that.

Mike Redwood

June 26, 2019


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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