No Hiding Place – by Mike Redwood, spokesman of Leather NaturallyWith just a few exceptions around the world, which we must fight to correct, we have an industry to be proud of and the best material for consumers to use and enjoy
In the leather industry, we have a history of trying to stay out of sight. In older times the processes we used and the raw material we started with created an unpleasant atmosphere so in Ancient Rome we were pushed to the mouth of the Tiber and the Venetians sent the tanners to a quite distant island. Tanning was defined as an odious and obnoxious trade: important but best done at a distance.
As the worldwide tannery business modernised in the late 20th century no one planned to build tanneries amongst housing or in the middle of towns but we did begin to realise that we no longer deserved to be always considered an objectionable industry. In my first tannery, making traditional leathers in pits we wore clogs, and then when I progressed to technical director I got a pair of rubber “Wellington” boots. But for at least the last thirty years I have been quite happy to take visitors round all the tanneries I worked in wearing everyday street or office clothes. If you do not stand under an emptying drum or next to a fleshing machine – and wear ear or eye protection where required by health and safety laws – you are fine.
The problem is that we told no one that things had changed. The silence from the tanners has continued, apart from a small number of sporadic campaigns that have mostly been related to specifically national or regional campaigns rather than anything generic about our main material – the wonder that is leather.
This silence of the last twenty-five years has not been without consequences. People still think all tanneries are dirty places; but the damage is greater than that. In our urbanised globalised society, our youth have often grown up without contact or knowledge of livestock but have been subject to relentless efforts to persuade them towards a vegan diet by fanatics who argue that everything to do with keeping livestock is bad for society.
During this time those who are fanatical about animal rights, like the richly funded PETA, have honed their arguments and their tactics. They openly accept that they falsify the facts if it supports their argument – as with their recent horrendous video of a cat being tortured which they finally admitted was computer generated. More worrying is the way that they equate a vegan diet with a sustainable lifestyle. They argue that keeping livestock, eating meat and using leather are all damaging the planet in a variety of ways. They are now openly suggesting alternate materials to use instead of leather and telling their extensive audience that these are more “sustainable’ than leather.
As we know in the last ten years the quality of competitive materials for leather both plastic and textile has greatly improved and the marketing departments of the producers have been quick to sense that there exists a bandwagon for them to climb on to. Hence, we are seeing the proliferation of all these illegal and deliberately misleading terms such as “grape leather”, “mushroom leather”, “synthetic leather” and “vegan leather”.
We always knew that organisations like PETA cherry picked the facts to create a narrative with which to attack leather but now they feel they have a new opportunity and are pushing aggressively including buying small shareholdings in some companies or using other means to gain access to address their annual meetings. As tanners we now face a formidable challenge.
One of the original members of the Leather Naturally steering committee wrote about the proliferation of alternates being promoted to brands and consumers alike:
I believe that all materials should be objectively evaluated and presented with full transparency. There are many “new” materials such as bamboo fibers which are presented as being sustainable and “green” that are essentially petroleum based products wrapped around a bamboo substrate. Tesla’s “vegan interior” option is another example of how unbalanced the marketing spin can be against leather. As I’ve said however, this is as much the fault of the leather industry itself as it is either the producers or users of these other materials. The leather industry seems uninterested and/or incapable of realizing the risk and putting forth the effort and resources necessary to develop and promote the benefits of leather. You will never convince a committed vegan that leather is a good option. The rest of the consumer base as well as the supply chain however, should hear a much louder, consistent, and objective message from the industry. Alas, it seems nearly impossible to get the industry to invest in their own self-interest.
A timely warning that we can be part of the problem as well as the solution and that our advertising and promotion must not be allowed to descend into Greenwash. Equally while heavily coated splits and selling bits and pieces into the “bonded leather” market can be important for tannery economics we need to be sure that the promotion for those materials does not imply that they are leather.
Meanwhile all around the world, in every sector from automobiles to footwear we are seeing the growth of alternate materials pushing into our traditional markets.
This is a new business environment, as competitive as ever but with a new edge that has the potential to do great damage. This is the moment when we must unite and coordinate an international response. With just a few exceptions around the world, which we must fight to correct, we have an industry to be proud of and the best material for consumers to use and enjoy.