I sat all yesterday through a series of presentations for industry University collaborative projects called KTPs. These are Knowledge Transfer Partnerships which are a very good way for business and Universities in the UK to collaborate. The companies contribute and the UK government then puts in quite a large amount and creates it normal bureaucracy around them.
My presence was because I am a trustee of the Leather Conversation Centre and we have a project running with the University of Northampton to find a new material to help conserve book bindings and leather upholstery suffering from red heat. This came about in the 19th century as we started to use new types of vegetable tanning materials and more strong acids. Combined with things like SO2 from the air acid develops inside the leather and it starts to disintegrate. Most of us will have handled books from the period that have started to crumble in our hands. The material that used to be used to help slow this and protect the leather has been banned as unsafe to work with so we now have nothing. So the project has Anne Lama who recently did her PhD at the British School of Leather Technology (now part of the Universities new Institute of Creative Leather Technologies) beavering away to find a new solution.
Typical of the British system the requirements are quite onerous. In addition to doing the research projects the researchers are expected to pass level 5 of the CMI management course. This is supposed to be degree level but is pretty obviously (to me anyway) some way behind. I have rather a similar view of the CIM courses too. And all the students have a grey haired and/or balding external adviser. I always wonder about that as are these people folks that represent yesterday and were made redundant in a previous life or are they people with real knowledge and experience who perhaps took early retirement or wanted to relax a little and give something back. It is hard to tell.
What was clear that everyone in the room was spellbound about leather. Anne did a great presentation in her short allotted time but even beyond that there was already an enthusiasm which she was able to capture and carry along. And most of the audience were other young researchers. It is important to remind ourselves that consumers do like our product.
They were also fascinated by the history, by the origins of things. From the photo of Nelson’s chair and her description of the work she did on it, to the making of leather wall hangings and there re-use as screens to the pieces of rotting book bindings she passed round everyone was involved.
This love of natural products, of the link to quality to luxury and to heritage is what makes leather so special. It simplicity and sustainability, properly made, is also a part of this. So knowing the origins and being sure of the claims being made about leather are very important elements for all marketers. We cannot allow greenwash. DEFRA are updating their guide at the moment – see http://www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/green-claims/index.htm Readers should also check out the “Six Sins of GreenwashingTM” from TerraChoice, which is easily found on line. We have all seen these claims about chrome-free (never quite defined) or “organic” which usually means a bit of quebracho or mimosa in amongst the calcium oxide, sodium sulphide, and metal pigments. Oh and “free of heavy metals” when even the best scientist knows that “heavy metal” is one of the most pointless descriptions ever. All things designed to sound green by confusing the consumer. An abuse of trust and a great damage to the long term image of leather. So we have:
- – Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
- – Sin of No Proof
- – Sin of Vagueness
- – Sin of Irrelevance
- – Sin of Lesser of Two Evils
- – Sin of Fibbing
To these they have no added the sin of false labelling. This latter is of interest in leather as our major brands worry about their commitment not to use hides from the Amazon Biome. How can we be sure about their origins? Some great work is being within the LWG on this and it looks like they have a formula that will deliver. But this emphasises the increasing importance of knowing the origins of things. For security, for environmental reasons and for heritage. Know where your leather comes from, know how it is truly made and help to make it last.