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I learned recently that the leather industry sorted out its definition of leather back in 1978 at an International Council of Tanners meeting in Buenos Aires. It now exists, more or less unchanged, as EN15987:2015 and is to be found in the International Council of Tanners Glossary (ICT), in much the same form as the old UK BS standard I have often discussed.
As the Secretary General of COTANCE (the European Tanners Association), Gustavo Gonzales-Quijano, explained this to an audience in the Portuguese leather capital of Alcanena last week, I found myself thinking that I was at that very meeting in 1978. I do not remember the item, or anything else about the agenda, but it was the first meeting of the ICT I ever attended, and the individuals I met on that trip – such as Bob Sykes, Nigel Palmer, Guy Reaks, Jim Jackman, Perti Hellemaa, Andres Colomer, John Koppany – became friends, colleagues and often advisers through my entire career.
It has been infuriating that since that date only a handful of countries have acknowledged the importance of defining materials properly, and even the EU could not be persuaded to tighten the leather definition and its labelling. Yet, listening to the comments made last week in Portugal, the industry does appear to be uniting in a number of common objectives, and it is clearly time to give our fullest backing to our administrators.
Speakers from IAPMEI – an agency supporting SMEs, who appear to have been deeply involved in the EU approach – gave a very coherent explanation of why the EU was unwilling to make changes a few years ago. Many, but perhaps not all, we will have to surmount if we go again. Most illuminating was Marta Lima Basta from the Portuguese Economic Ministry where she is Deputy Director General of the DGAE. After listening intently, she told the assembly that while the EU could be long winded and frustrating, the industry should not get disheartened. With a new Parliament and Commission coming during 2019, there would be an opportunity to restart the dialogue. With the Adviser to the Secretary of State for Internationalization, Carla Tavares, also present, it looked as though COTANCE might be able to ask Portugal to be the lead country for another effort to get sound regulations with regards to stopping consumers being deliberately mislead.
Definition: Hides or skins with the original fibrous structure more or less intact.
It appears that the industry has a possible opening for a similar discussion in the USA and if so, will again push for the ICT definition of leather. So, around the world the idea that leather is fully recognised as “hides or skins with the original fibrous structure more or less intact, tanned to be imputrescible” becomes a real possibility.
It would make sense to consider getting tanneries and trade associations around the world to adopt this term in their literature, not as a slogan or marketing tool, but something always present which is a real - and subliminal - reminder of what we make, what we will defend, and where others must not abuse the terminology to cheat the consumer.
Leather accepts competition, so this is not about protectionism, and often tanners might cooperate with competitive materials. Zoa has been announced as likely to come to market via tannery partnerships, and many non-wovens have benefited from working with tanners in Italy who understood how to improve the architecture and the chemistry of the structure.
Yet, at the end of the day, whatever the material, it must be honest as to what it is, how it is made and where it comes from. To claim a material is environmentally better than leather while talking vaguely about livestock and arsenic, while ignoring the fact that it comes from oil, will disintegrate into sky and sea and never properly biodegrade, is dishonest. Consumers often find out when they come to the moment of repair, where they discover they have been deliberately cheated by false advertising.
The Portuguese Industry created a great platform for this discussion last week, and if we can continue the great battle in this spirit, we will be honouring the work done by some of those great leather industry visionaries from 1978.
Dr Mike Redwood
April 17, 2019
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