Since the 1960s, we have seen a huge consolidation in most industries. In tanning – despite there still being a huge number of medium, small and even artisan tanneries – fewer than 200 tanners process nearly 70% of the 24 billion square feet of leather made in the world every year.

At the same time, back in the 1960s, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn was the seminal text that set the trend for everyone to start considering themselves scientific experts. Ever since that time, top scientists have found themselves challenged. Today, all around the world it has become commonplace to challenge the safety and value of vaccinations, whether climate change is occurring at all or whether we should place any credence on Charles Darwin’s work on evolution.

This makes life harder for those of us in the tanning business – where leather still has its detractors. They complain that leather destroys the environment, uses ‘toxic’ chemicals, produces tons of waste and society only accepts leather because it has to. The motivation for pressure groups is to get rid of leather as soon as a better alternative comes along, but what is particularly upsetting is that most of the ‘science’ still being cited to support these claims is entirely wrong, yet it has gone unchallenged by the leather industry. So one role of the Leather Naturally campaign continues to be to galvanise the fight against erroneous claims and the general ignorance towardsleather. Part of this role also aims to educate the industry itself since sometimes we are careless with our use, science and scientific terms.

Defining the matter at hand

The 1987 Brundtland definition of sustainability remains the most accepted, but what did Harlem Brundtland actually say? The definition talks about looking after the needs of the present without damaging the future. This is a very broad and incredibly imprecise definition. This makes it attractive for a lot of organisations to adopt it without analysing what it actually should mean for them. As tanners, we have to consider it in more depth, especially noting the two caveats that are attached to the basic definition.

One talks about our responsibility to pull people out of poverty, and the other that there is a battle between the industrial advancement needed to achieve this and environmental issues. Today, we tend to refine this down to look at balancing ethics with the environment and the need for business to do economically well enough to remain profitable.

So when we say our leather and our process is sustainable, we need to consider what that means in relation to the biosphere, water use, erosion, waste management or energy usage, as well as what it mean for poverty, inequality and water scarcity. If we stand back and look at leather, we can put up our hands and say that well-made leather fits every aspect of sustainability exceptionally well, but I don’t think we put up our hands enough to just make those points; that in processing, environmental aspects and in social responsibility, the leather industry is ‘a good thing’.

Social security

Looking at social responsibility, one of the positive advancements we’ve seen in the past few years has been the Tannery of the Year Awards. Winners aren’t always the biggest, most advanced or most well known, but have won because corporate social responsibility is high up on the agenda of the company.

In Ethiopia, where the Ethiopia Tannery Share Company won Tannery of the Year in 2009, the government likes leather largely because of the downstream jobs it creates. Large numbers of jobs in light industry like footwear and garments mean governments can collect taxes, reduce or avoid corruption, and get away from debt and dependency on aid from developed countries. The leather industry will help pull citizens out of poverty and move the country towards its national goal of having a middle-class economy in the future. Throughout the world, in the 20th century, leather and leather-using industries have helped millions of workers escape from poverty. Just think back to Korea and Taiwan.

When considering frequent comments that tanners use ‘toxic materials’, the International Union of Applied Chemists has a division that looks at health and toxicology. Maybe it’s something for our leather chemical organisations to think about, especially in the light of all the erroneous references to leather’s impact on the environment and communities.

A brief history of toxicology

Swiss-German Renaissance man Paracelsus, born in 1493, is accepted by many as the father of toxicology. He said, "The dose makes the poison" (Dosis facit venenum). This aspect that everything is poisonous depending solely on the quantity involved was explained in another longer quote that stated, "Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy." In reality, a soft-drinks plant can be as dangerous as any tannery.

The chemists argue strongly that the use of the term ‘heavy metals’ should be totally abandoned. There are just too many confusing definitions of it – various atomic weights’ atomic numbers, densities and other associations. It is a quite nonsensical term, but one the leather industry itself is guilty of using in its marketing literature and conversations. This is careless, and our scientists and technicians have a responsibility to stop the abuse of the language of science for short-term marketing gains. Terms such as toxic, sustainability, biodegradable, heavy metals and organic need to be used more responsibly or not at all.

The end result

The more leather is interrogated by friends or enemies, independent observers or potential customers, the more we should have nothing to be frightened of. Leather is good for workers, governments and the planet. We can still do better and we must not shirk from saying so. We have areas in the world where tanners refuse to accept responsibility for waste management and where authorities fail to enforce their own laws. We condemn this and seek correction, but attacking the whole leather industry based on this is entirely wrong and helps no one, especially those whose livelihoods are at stake.

So our role at Leather Naturally is to push for rectification in these negative areas, but just as strongly to fight to tell the world, and remind our friends within and out of the industry, that leather is good for society and for the planet. We should be proud to call ourselves tanners.