The big news capturing headlines in the leather industry in the last week has been man made beef burgers. Pretty ugly things with added blood of unborn calves and all sorts of taste and colour modifiers.
More importantly and much closer to market is the 3D printing of a fibrous collagen material that has come out of plans to produce 3D printed meat. This leather substitute is easier to make and caries fewer consumer issues. Those making it are vociferous in voicing their opinion that it should be called leather and nothing other than leather. It will need tanning, so there may be work for excess tanning industry capacity. The idea is that it can be produced without unwanted surface defects, back to belly variation or strange hide and skin shapes. That is a leather that is better than leather.
Now we know that over time leather will become scarcer in terms of per capita availability and that substitutes of many sorts will be needed. Correctly managed by our industry this should mean that leather should steadily gain value from its true natural characteristics of beauty, performance and longevity.
Yet confusing the consumer has been an active process both undertaken by and permitted by our industry in the last 25 years. The term “synthetic leather” may have a totally clear meaning – plastic – in Chinese but how did we allow a situation where banks of Asian producers attend International trade fairs and sell non-woven and coated plastics under the name of “synthetic leather”? In a largely urban world these days this just serves to confuse the consumer in the same was as some of the commodity products tanners sometimes produce to sell the lower grades.
The EU is currently looking at the definitions and naming of leather under an “authenticity” project. The Brand leather needs two things. One is for the industry to loudly and clearly prosecute those using illegal terms such as “synthetic leather” in those countries where the law bans it. We need good examples of successful action against this mislabelling. The second is to stop any 3D printed material being allowed to use the term “leather” and so pass off a man made material as something which it is clearly not – a beautiful product whose value lies in the infinite variations that come from using a natural raw material. Tanners know that each and every hide and skin is marvellously different based on breed, age, climate diet and husbandry, and properly worked it is this that gives leather its true value. Leather must retain all this integrity, built into a commercially superior material with the craftsmanship of the tanner, without being damaged by the false naming of other materials only intended to muddle the consumer.
First published in ILM in May 2014