Chock full of facts, statistics and information about leather, the Is It Leather website takes on all the misconceptions about leather as well as wannabe substitutes.

More importantly, the group’s companion social media campaign is already making a difference, increasing engagement and positive commentary about leather’s benefits.

The leather industry has a consumer problem,” says Craig Tonti, former chief operating officer of Eagle Ottawa, leather expert and industry advocate. “Unless we educate consumers, retailers aren’t going to change,” adds Tonti, who is also one of the founders of the Is It Leather campaign.

He and Brad Jackson, president of Point Blank Communication, are making some serious headway in engaging consumers about leather: with the support of 12 sponsors and an association, the team set out to draw 75,000 monthly visitors to the website. Already, they are exceeding 100,000 monthly.

From facts about leather and fake leather to tips for shoppers in each category, the website provides concise, consumer-friendly information. There are also many articles about various aspects of leather, tanning, labelling, recycling and more for curious consumers to engage with.

The social media side of the campaign has had some very significant results as well, shifting the commentary from negative to positive.

“Pre-2020, less than 10% of the comments on social media were pro-leather. Once we started correcting the misconceptions, within a year, 50% of the comments went positive,” says Tonti. “The radical few are being challenged by the silent majority… It’s working but it’s evolutionary, not revolutionary,” he adds.

“The campaigns have to be consumerdriven. Without change from an educational standpoint, retailers will continue to profit from slick names for plastic products.”
Brad Jackson, Point Blank Communication

“This is a perfect example of a grassroots campaign,” explains Jackson, who adds that it’s an ideal way to counter the well-financed antileather movement.

“This gives people a voice when they didn’t think that they could have one,” he says, noting that change will take time and persistence.

Where to begin?

The Is It Leather website and campaign grew out of concerns that developed while Tonti was consulting in the leather industry. The automotive leather market was falling fast even though car buyers want leather in their cars and it is profitable for dealers, Tonti explains. In fact, data shows that in the past decade, the number of consumers who purchased leather in their new cars increased by 9% and that 52% of consumers want real leather.

Still, only 15% of vehicles have it. That’s leaving a lot of money on the table and a good deal of consumer desire unfulfilled.

“It’s a money-maker for brands but they are only satisfying a small proportion of the consumer desire for leather,” Tonti says. Much of this is because the politics of leather have become so strong. Rather than get involved in potential controversy, some automakers have cut back on using leather or moved away from it entirely.

Now, as the tide turns and more information emerges about the composition of alternative materials, automotive CEOs are starting to ask why their companies are not offering leather in their cars, Tonti says.

The footwear sector has also moved away from leather over the years; however, the reasons are a little more complex. Leather initially lost a lot of footwear market share to plastics when hide prices skyrocketed to record highs in the period of 2010–14.

Manufacturers switched to cheaper alternatives, mainly PU. These days, even with record-low hide prices, plastics and textiles are still dominating footwear. It’s not just the politics of leather that are to blame, but also the rise of athleisure styles and the decline of formal footwear, which uses a lot more leather.

In the automotive sector, the industry has seen the decline in leather use level off. “I think we’ve stopped the bleeding for automotive,” Tonti says. Naturally, the team believes that the same type of messaging can help other sectors like shoes, accessories and furniture. So, they are expanding their messaging campaign.

“The campaigns have to be consumer-driven. Without change from an educational standpoint, retailers will continue to profit from slick names for plastic products,” Jackson says. Indeed, the growth of terms like ‘vegan leather’, ‘PU leather’, ‘ecoleather’ and a host of ‘plant leathers’ have made it far more difficult for consumers to know exactly what they are buying.

Often, products made from those alternative materials are simply labelled as ‘leather’, making it impossible for shoppers to know what they are getting.

While a cheaper price tag used to be the tell-tale sign of fake leather, that is no longer the case. High-end shoes, handbags and accessories made from vegan materials are often expensive.

Going viral

Social media is now the go-to method for initiating change because of its great capacity and reach. It’s also key because using social media costs just a fraction of what hiring an advertising agency does. This allows the campaigns to have more impact for less investment. Between the website and social media efforts, the Is It Leather campaign aims to have 1.3 billion impressions within three years – and is well on its way.

“We are the fastest-growing leather account on LinkedIn… We want synergy in the industry in focusing on the consumer.”
Craig Tonti, Is It Leather

To push the relevant messaging out on social media, Is It Leather has an internal influencer who posts on TikTok, Instagram and other platforms. In addition, the campaign has partnerships with 25 related influencers who use its messages on their own accounts. This effectively extends the campaign’s reach.

Leather in and of itself is not a popular topic on social media, Tonti explains, but two related issues certainly are: deception and greenwashing. Of course, these are both important topics in the leather supply chain and are easily incorporated into presenting leather’s message.

Browse the Is It Leather social media channels and you’ll see how content is presented when it comes to these two issues. From humour and some cheekiness to dramatic demonstrations – like torching a leather jacket and a fake leather – the content is engaging as well as educational.

Frankly, it must appeal to the younger consumer segments that need the most education on the subject.

Existing customer importance

While the consumer is the focus of Is It Leather efforts, preaching to the choir is still very important too, Tonti and Jackson say. LinkedIn has become vital for engaging the business side of leather.

“We are the fastest-growing leather account on LinkedIn,” Tonti says.

The number of reposts and the level of engagement are very impressive, he says, adding that it is getting the attention of the retail world. This is especially true when it comes to European retailers who face more stringent product regulations in the EU.

Of course, Is It Leather is not the first or only organisation to promote the facts about leather. Tonti and Jackson say they aim to help align industry organisations in presenting consumer education about leather in an organised way.

Already, three associations have joined the effort and talks are under way with more groups.

“We want synergy in the industry in focusing on the consumer,” Tonti says. By working together, efforts will be more effective in reaching the public and clearing up the confusion over materials in the marketplace.

The pair say that the Is It Leather team is strong, with many collaborators and volunteers who are committed to correcting the misinformation about leather. They have plans for more campaigns and other initiatives to safeguard leather and its place in the market.

They urge professionals all along the supply chain to subscribe on the website as well as follow on social media. The more reposts, the better for the leather business as it continues to separate facts from fiction.

Technologies and innovations for sustainable leather production

The leather tanning sector is experiencing a technological revival. Advanced techniques such as ultrasound tanning, using sound waves to improve the absorption of tanning agents, are diminishing reliance on chemical usage. Concurrently, the adoption of biopolymers and enzymes is enhancing the eco-friendliness of the process. Ongoing research is delving into microbial tanning, a potential game-changer that may revolutionise the industry through a sustainable and efficient approach, with Is It Leather raising the below points:

■ Advanced wastewater treatment systems: Implement processes that use advanced technologies to treat wastewater to a higher level than conventional systems.

■ Digital tools for traceability and transparency: Use software systems like ERP (enterprise resource planning), CRM (customer relationship management) and SCM (supply chain management) to track and manage the supply chain, ensuring transparency and accountability.

■ Sustainable alternatives: Develop and use materials that mimic leather but are environmentally sustainable and cruelty-free, such as plant-based leather made from coconut, cork, pineapple leaves or mushroom mycelium.

The LWG, in collaboration with the Sustainable Leather Foundation, leads the initiative for a more sustainable leather industry. Brands like Mulberry, Pittards, Davy’s of London, ECCO Leather, PrimeAsia Leather Company and JBS Couros, who are licenced partners, maintain a direct connection with consumers. Opting to support these brands enables consumers to actively contribute to a more sustainable and ethical leather industry.