Sustainability demands integrity and completeness

Redwood Comment
Published:  19 February, 2020
Dr Mike Redwood

It is barely daylight as I write this, not yet 6am. It is Sunday and this is the Southern Hemisphere. Our position is about 53 degrees South and only 1,200 km from the Antarctic Peninsula across what is called Drake Passage. It has felt like a wild night as the wind has howled around our primitive accommodation in an old container – adapted into what was once commonly called a Portacabin.

A flight on a tiny plane to a grass strip and a long four-wheel drive over hills and through bogs left us alone in this place. Of course, we are not truly alone, as standing in front of us are colonies of Gentoo, Magellanic and King Penguins as far as we can see across a narrow peninsula, and a little round the hillside we sat for hours watching Rockhopper Penguins and Black Browed Albatross whose huge chicks are preparing for departure to sea next month.

This place of human solitude but teeming with life expresses everything about sustainability that Brundtland explained in her famous report that still provides the foundation of teaching on the subject of sustainability today. The fragility of the environment we live in is as obvious as the human detritus on the beach that has been deposited from far distant land. We watch as penguins have to meander through it to catch the tide to head off for food.

The balance that is required to fit a sustainable path with technological advancement and the need to alleviate poverty are detailed by Brundtland but often totally ignored by those who use the term “sustainability” so support a business methodology that is often indefensible. Did plastic manufacturers consider the Brundtland definition in these last few decades? Who thought that millions and millions of single use items would be acceptable? Why were we all taken in?

“Sustainability”, like “organic”, “biodegradable”, “heavy metal” and “toxic” have, as I have often repeated in recent years, become weasel words used to create images in the minds of consumers. The way these words are used, even in promotions and campaigns in our own industry, routinely ignores their scientific origins in favour of a clever slogan.

Leather Naturally frequently talks about responsibly manufactured leather and, while we have not yet produced any form of manifesto as to the definition of “responsibly”, there are many white papers and documents on our website to guide those who are uncertain. For me, it is a matter of pride that those who are members of Leather Naturally are helping us define and understand how true sustainability fits with the manufacture and use of leather. They are determined to work at the highest level, whatever sector of the leather industry they are in. They know we cannot say that leather uses a waste material, is therefore circular and, consequently, sustainable; this is far too simplistic given how complex the industry is. A business is only as strong as its weakest link, and sadly leather still has a multitude of weak links.

No one expects us to be perfect

Arguing that we use a by-product or even a waste product is disingenuous if it is then the basis of an argument that animal welfare is nothing to do with us, or that modern day slave labour found in agriculture and abattoirs is not our problem. Equally within tanneries the abuse of the workforce through inaccurate reporting or payments, the failure to provide personal protective clothing and equipment, to set up proper handling of chemicals and careless or absent waste disposal is clear to see in many tanning areas around the world and has become a magnet for certain types of commentators and reporters. It is not only the obvious emerging countries that have problems. Abuse is everywhere. Unless as an industry we accept these failings and act individually and collectively to accelerate their correction and the adherence to a higher overall standard, then we cannot properly proclaim leather to be sustainable, nor one leather origin or type to be better than the rest. No one expects us to be perfect, whatever that might be, but they do have the right to expect us to acknowledge our areas of failure and be working to resolve them.

Here in the South Atlantic local residents have to deal with a great deal beyond changing temperatures and foreign plastic waste. Around the whole greater Antarctic Zone the ozone layer is absent forcing those with sensitive skin to emigrate. Balancing the correct numbers of livestock, mostly sheep, and tourists, mostly cruise boats, with higher levels of biodiversity is clearly an increasing challenge. And geopolitics still enter the system with indiscriminate and relentless fishing in nearby international waters imperilling some rare species that have only started recently started to recover.

Whether you are working in the leather industry or spending time well off the beaten track, sustainability sits high on the agenda. Brundtland still offers the best definition, but even if you choose not use it, be sure to be clear that you are defining your terms with clarity and are critically examining your position in the full light of the context in which you are working. The leather industry struggles manfully to invest to match the share of voice of the opposition and the competition, but it can be clear that it speaks with the most honest and transparent voice.

Dr Mike Redwood

February 16, 2020

mike@internationalleathermaker.com
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

Publication and Copyright of "Redwood Comment" remains with the publishers of International Leather Maker. The articles cannot be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the publisher.