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I received an email two weeks ago when I asked for some advice from the Product Life Institute in Geneva. My message had mentioned the comparison of leather with plastic substitutes.
“A key topic is also patina - leather gets a patina, it gains in attraction, plastic just gets dirty and ugly.”
For me, the founder of the PLI, Walter Stahel is a hero. In 1982 he wrote Product-Life Factor, a Mitchell Prize Winning Paper long accepted as the foundation of what we now call the Circular Economy.
Today we tend to talk of the Circular Economy mostly in terms of end of life, when it should be possible to separate an article into its organic and chemical elements and send them away to be re-used in place of virgin material. Leather does fit in here, but we are far from comfortable with the approach since the concept behind tanning has always been that leather should last a long time. Over the history of society, one of the great values of leather has been its strength and durability, allied with its ability to be adapted for an almost infinity of uses.
Stahel was originally an architect and saw that in most instances it was better to renovate an old building than to completely knock it down and rebuild with entirely new materials. He calculated the rough costs to society of extracting new materials and throwing away old in terms of CO2 emissions and the labour value in terms of retaining skills and providing jobs from maintaining and repairing items so they last longer. A country’s emissions could be reduced by up to 70%, he thought, by using things longer and 4% of the working population could be employed in repair, in roles that would not be replaced by robots. He reconfirmed these figures in an updated paper in Nature in 2016 when he reminded us that the most important elements of circularity are about longevity, repair and reuse, well before we accept the costs of end of life and recycling.
So, to receive a personal reply from him which identifies in twenty words the essential area where leather differs from substitute materials was quite wonderful.
Almost all such alternates are being positioned in the market as more “sustainable” than leather. It reminds us of the points it is important for us to make to designers and consumers about leather. Leather is not for the “throw-away” consumer. It is not intended to be “cheap and cheerful”. Tanners put effort into it so that articles in which it is used will last, will mostly be easy to maintain, and work with designers to persuade them to consider both the ease of repair and end of life.
Plastics of all sorts have started to cause a real problem for leather as the materials they used to class as “synthetic leather” but now more often call “vegan leather” have hugely improved and been presented extensively into the fashion, the furniture, the automotive and the leathergoods markets. In the automotive world, leather has to fight “decontenting” where car companies steadily reduce the proportion of leather inside to see how much they dare put in, while still saying the car is leather upholstered. In leather goods, some major brands let it be known they are so committed to a vegan philosophy, they do not care that using the term “vegan leather” for plastic confuses consumers, as their primary objective is to oppose the use of leather.
As Walter Stahel says, these materials do not perform well in use, and many last months rather than years, and almost none can be repaired. In landfill, they will hang around for a minimum of 500 years, with some plastics surviving very much longer even than that. We also know that if they get into a marine environment, sea water will create a disintegration into microplastics. Some arises because rising oceans and increased flooding is exposing old waste dumps to the sea, but huge amounts of bottles, fishing tackle, plastic shoes and the like end up being disposed of into rivers and estuaries. Another source we are hearing about is that synthetic fibres in garments get broken down in washing machines and are creating microplastics now being found throughout the oceans and getting into human diets, never mind those of marine life and animals. The latest study in Nature Communications shows that microplastics are found throughout the Arctic Ocean from Europe to the North Pole and the North American Arctic. Their presence raises concerns that textiles, laundry and municipal wastewater may be an important source of these emerging pollutants.
The plastics industry is an important and rich industry. They are working hard on recycling and we can expect some major campaigns. But collecting used plastics has proven very difficult and almost impossible in the developing world. Sorting out laundry will be even harder. Let us get consumers to save up and replace their cheap fleece with a long lasting leather or shearling jacket.
February 3, 2021
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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