The leather industry began to change during the decade of the 2010s and I like to think that Leather Naturally played a part in what we will look back as a transformation. It began the decade still in the belief that it was very special – which it is but not in ways that make it untouched by macro-economics – and should not spend time and money defending itself against those preaching against it.
Whatever the reason we are working through the 2020s with the leather industry fighting more strongly for itself across nearly all organisations throughout the world. Much of the language being used and all of the arguments are those we have been using and arguing for in Leather Naturally since we started as Brand Leather back in 2008. We need everyone to get involved, and more importantly to believe in what they are doing and to show it in the manufacturing methods that they use.
In November 2021 shortly before COP26 in Glasgow thirty organisations came together to publish the Leather Manifesto and it is a most important document about the role of leather in society and along with other natural materials requires fair consideration in the benefits it offers for the fight against both climate change and the loss of biodiversity.
I was deeply involved in Leather Naturally from 2008 until 2018 as an unpaid spokesperson and the new younger team has now taken the mission forward, to great effect. From a privileged semi-retired, position, I have the luxury to write about matters in the leather industry every week and my items can be found here:
Leather Naturally remains at the interface of technology and marketing with the intention to play a major role in promoting leather. Supported by top tanners, chemical supply companies and others in the industry they talk to companies and NGOs to ensure they understand the true facts about leather rather than get tied up with the negative promotional jargon pushed out by single issue absolutists from an animal rights point of view. Just as importantly they work to help modern designers, retailers and consume s to better understand the inherent values in leather and how to exploit its natural benefits, longevity and sustainability. They have established a digital magazine METCHA to talk to younger generations and have an outstanding suite of educational materials about leather. Find out more at LeatherNaturally.org
The Mission is:
Leather Naturally promotes the use of globally-manufactured sustainable leather and seeks to inspire and inform designers, creators, and consumers about it’s beauty, quality and versatility.
And in summary here are the objectives of LeatherNaturally!
To educate the buying public, fashion designers and finished product manufacturers about the use, beauty, versatility and sustainability of leather. We want to make the point that responsibly produced leather is one of the best materials from a sustainability point of view.
To educate the public on the shortcomings of synthetic materials made from petrochemical processes which leave a huge carbon footprint on the environment and like radioactive materials, take hundreds if not thousands of years to biodegrade themselves into Mother Earth
To defend the leather industry against the criticism leveled against the use of animal skins and the alleged dangers caused by cattle ranching and tanning industry to the environment
This early interview I did nearly a decade ago sets the tone, although the organisation has raced ahead since then.
Leather technology is in a period of change and by far the major part of this relates to the marketing and environmental situation which Leather Natural and now other organisations are speaking out about. This all only has meaning if the industry continues to deliver on the remarkable advance that have been made not only to meet the environmental demands of the modern world, with better understanding of chemistry, biochemistry, biodiversity and planetary temperature change. Through this work leather finds itself in a leadership position. It was never really behind, but it was so insular that it never noticed the world about it, or what was happening elsewhere by comparison.
So I believe that tanners have always been generally well intentioned and working to the standards as they understood them, advancing steadily with the science. But leather comes from a craft sector of small plants and such small factories tend to be unregulated. What is clear is that modern leather making cannot allow any unregulated plants where environmental rules are not enforced, and that in general small tanneries are not viable unless feeding into a suitable central waste treatment facility. Such plants and areas around the world do the leather industry great harm, but need to be managed to a correct status as employment from leather and especially making things form leather is important in nearly every country in the world.
So expect technology to keep advancing and recognise that the old technologies will continue to inform new innovations.
For most of the 20th century chrome tanning has been dominant and used for around 90% of all leather as horse transport was replaced by the combustion engine and sole leather by rubber and plastics types. It looks hard to find a really good alternate to chromium and we can expect it to remain important for a long time. The biggest development has pushed non chromium and non vegetable leathers into the automobile industry and in some instances have been found to have better hydro-thermal stability. But non chrome leather with one or two exceptions is generally not as good as chromium and cannot yet match its technological performance. I am a fan of Titanium and have seen some excellent products. Another exciting looking development is a material based on Zeolite. Zeolites are crystalline aluminosilicates belonging to the group of tectosilicate molecular sieves and “Zeology” is chrome-free and aldehyde-free.
Yet as any technology passes on to a new level you have many options, some good and some bad, being developed at the same time and often it takes twenty or thirty years for a new dominant process to emerge. So what is happening in leather right now is quite typical.
All this is happenig at a time when environmetal issues and compliance are ever more important, when REACH has added to the complexity along with other regulations. However as a result by 2015 the world’s top tanneries who make the big volumes of leather are some of the finest imaginable in terms of the use of energy, water and materials and the recycling or re-use of all materials. Zero solid waste and recyling water have become far more frequent and we can look forward to tanneries which are working on true cradle to cradle approaches.
So getting the mix of your innovation right is important. You have to balance long term fundamental improvements with short term seasonal ones of colour and fashion. You have to decide where to strike a balance between clever technology and what the final customer can see as a real feature and benefit.And you do need innovation as textiles, synthetic leather types and plastics are all encroaching and getting better aesthetically and technically.
Technology means considering all these things:
end of life
efficiency of process
and in all this what you do in house and what you source externally in terms of skills, technologies and competences you need
Getting your tecnhology strategy right is a very big deal.
At times of recession innovation is even more important. Remember when thinking about innovation you can have innovation in various forms:
marketing innovation (to do with business models, service elements)
Many of my customers do not think about the first and confuse the last two. They like to go for the breakthrough product that will change the world and earn them a fortune when in fact they have little chance of being able to make such a product andno cahnce at all of getting it to market, at any price. Most tanners, but of course not all, need to work on process innovation.
When tanners do work on new products they tend to romance the product too much and forget about any needs the final consumer might have. As one of my clients in the brands and retailers sector tells me tanners need to think of:
Real innovation that people are willing to pay more money for versus marketing verbiage with no real substance
It is always a shame when big money has been spent creating cleverproducts with no sell through value to the consumer
Today leather increasingly have to meet measurable performance targets. Mostly these have to do with what we might call health and safety for example checking that banned substances are not present. Other things are relevant also such as ensuring colour and thickness consistency from pack to pack or meeting water resistance targets,
Only when you are sure that all these things are measured and met can you start to think about the evolution of marketing strategy and moves into innovation.
Sustainability and Cradle to Cradle
The industry is spending huge sums of money on dealing with environmental issues, on compliance, and trying to deal with future worries over landfill. In some places I have been recently like India and Pakistan inefficient or non-existent treatment in the past has done serious long term damage to the ground water and even the health of the general population. Some places in Pakistan, Kanpur and in Bangladesh still remain problematic but even in these countries as in most of the rest of the world it is only a tiny proportion of the total volume of leather made which is associated with bad environmental and CSR policies. Nevertheless the leather is committed to bring this to an end, but often it is difficult as bad management occurs because of dysfunctional government as well as bad managers and owners.
At the other end of the scale the huge volume of shoes going into landfill is not sustainable and we must ask ourselves questions about the proper length of life of a product made of leather and what should happen to the product at that time.
From lifecycle to recycle and beyond
Really far thinking companies take this one step further and adopt the cradle to cradle philosophy (Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart) which rejects the production concepts born of the industrial revolution. These embodied abusing the planet’s resources through excessive consumption and thoughtless waste and designing products which used up what we now to be scarce resources with one time, one way use. Cradle to grave now covers putting toxic waste into landfill and telling ourselves they are at least safe. According to Cradle to Cradle products have biological and technical nutrients within them and at the end of life of a product these need to be separated out for proper re-use. The biological elements can returned to the land as the leaves fall from the trees and the chemical elements should be extracted for correct re-use. “Safe landfill” should not be an option nor should re-cycling which involves leaving significant or pertinent technical content in the material. Using chrome leather pieces out of old leather products for running tracks may be well intentioned, but it is not right. Traditional re-cycling may be better than waste but it reduces our guilt rather than removes it.
Those interested in Cradle-to-Cradle thinking should remember that the major benefits to society come from using goods longer, and then repairing them. Leather fits this bill perfectly.
This is the approach I am committed to.
In September 2017 we had the next World Leather Congress in Shanghai the day before the ACLE Fair. The interview I did with Su Chao Ying in 2016 explains some of the background.
Enjoy the leather section of this website. Its leather history, technology largely a snapshot from the 1960s, historical timeline, people and ideas.