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If you watched the APLF Academy seminars, which are all now available on YouTube, you may have seen “The sustainability of knowledge within the industry”, presented by Rachel Garwood of the University of Northampton. She demonstrated how much University Leather education has changed over the last decade to create better options for both what is called “lifelong learning” and traditional leather learning - changes that have rapidly advanced because of COVID-19.
Quite wonderful teaching facilities that the industry must exploit
The detailed understanding of chemistry and collagen fibre structure began over 200 years ago with tanners and scientists like Sir Humphrey Davy, and became vital after the introduction of chrome tanning. It has a long history, and today we have an industry that badly requires more young staff completely new to the industry, as well as more students sent from companies around the world. Northampton now has quite wonderful teaching facilities which the industry must exploit. A global bursary fund could be a starter.
In addition, there are many supervisory or simpler skills involved in running tanneries and making leather, plus those involved in crafting the wide range of items that are made using leather. In his 2021 Atkin Memorial Lecture, Reg Hankey, CEO of Pittards, highlighted the importance of these levels of training where he explained training has evolved into new forms of Apprentice Schemes.
The trade organisation Leather UK has worked very hard on developing these courses throughout all sectors of the industry, and one company, Mulberry, whose factories are close to my home, established some excellent schemes with the local Bridgwater College. This has played a major part in generating staff for them, not least helping with employees for the start-up of their second factory and to dramatically reduce the average age of their workforce.
Another award-winning apprenticeship scheme in the UK leather industry has been run by the Scottish Leather Group since 2012, successfully bringing in young people to a wide range of jobs from engineering through factory floor operations to support tasks. Anyone visiting their tanneries feels the dynamic created by young people of all levels who have found excitement in an industry previously unknown to them.
Readers of this column will know that I consider the provision of employment a major element in the leather sustainability story. This is particularly true for young people from disadvantaged groups for whom not enough jobs are being created in the developing world or for those struggling with the effects of deindustrialisation in the developed world. From the very first thoughts the UN had on sustainability, pulling people out of poverty through employment was seen as vital and the need for “productive employment and decent work” is now enshrined in SDG8.
So, it was doubly pleasing to see that on Earth Day in April, Mulberry used full page press articles to explain that their updated approach to producing their bags would involve a link to the Scottish Leather Group through their Muirhead Tannery.
Mulberry have worked harder than most to understand the science
The “Can a Bag Save the World” manifesto they published is a major departure from the approach of many other brands. Mulberry appear to have worked harder than most to comprehend and explain the underlying science and to fit it into the original thinking that underpins the Circular Economy. In doing this, they have avoided the pitfalls that so many other designers and brands have fallen into, which make us fearful that governments are likely to make poor decisions with dreadful long-term consequences for both climate and biodiversity in areas such as farming, materials and manufacturing.
Equally important is that Mulberry have escaped from thinking that recycling is the primary concept of the Circular Economy. Instead, the brand is focusing on making to last, to repair, refurbish and eventually repurpose. All of these will have major impacts on design, a key element in reducing the consumption of the planet’s limited resources. Anything which is incapable of being repurposed at end of life will almost certainly end up in the specially built Scottish Leather Group Thermal Energy plant and used for power generation.
With so much of the push forward in the leather industry in recent years, having remained siloed, this partnership is exceedingly refreshing. The argument that sustainability of leather should be measured only from abattoir to the tannery exit, since leather is a waste product of the meat and dairy industry, or a promotional focus that only supports selected countries or industry sectors while often undermining others, has clear limitations. While correct, it is increasingly obvious that the whole supply network from the very beginning to the end of an article via repurposing or incineration must be considered. And that consumers want to be confident about animal welfare. We should be able to shine a light anywhere, highlighting areas most in need of correction or improvement.
The Made to Last Manifesto has been distilled down and presented as six key actions for change:
1. Pioneer a local, transparent 'farm to finished product' supply chain model
2. Develop the world's lowest carbon leather sourced from a network of organic and environmentally conscious farms
3. Achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2035
4. Continue to extend the life of Mulberry products through repair and restoration
5. Buy back, resell or repurpose any Mulberry bag
6. Extend Mulberry's commitment to being a real Living Wage employer by working with its network of suppliers to achieve the same
There are many larger and richer luxury brands than Mulberry around the world, and quite a lot now own tanneries and are doing excellent work, but few have put together such a clear, transparent and well-argued approach as this. Talking in the same statement about regenerative agriculture alongside “a bag with a promise of regeneration” is unheard of.
2021 is exactly 50 years since Roger Saul borrowed £500 from his mother to start making belts and other items at his kitchen table. A good number of the early bags still exist, indeed I think there might be one or two in my family, but there is now absolutely no doubt that a new Mulberry bag is set for a long and valuable life, demonstrating true value to the consumer, as well as society through employment, wise resource consumption, contribution to halting climate change and improving biodiversity.
May 5, 2021
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