What does one do when “defending” leather. To have a team available to challenge every negative comment made anywhere and everywhere about leather is more than our industry is capable of mustering, especially when some of those who do want to actually attack leather have annual budgets in the tens of millions of dollars.
While with certain items such as the Stella McCartney PETA video, the badly informed attack on leather by the CEO of PUMA up to the recent article by Lucy Siegler in the UK Observer newspaper we have become directly involved in a dialogue and some alternate public relations.
In the past our industry has been nervous about speaking out and we have many old exchanges of emails and letters suggesting it is better to keep quiet when falsehoods are being peddled about our material. There is no denying that historically the mix of the nature of the leather business and way society understand health and human welfare meant that tanneries were often unsavoury places in poor locations, and that for periods of the twentieth century compliance with the regulations as they were introduced was frequently the minimum to avoid prosecution, Yet those days feel like a long time ago and indeed are two or three decades or more ago for moist of us who have been in the industry long enough to remember.
What we are finding now is that when we spend time with organisations as we have done - from those worried about water in China to concern about footwear manufacture and the materials used in the Netherlands - they are both engaged and interested. They are always wary of us as they recognise that we are effectively a lobby group with only the interests of leather at heart. For us this is important as one of the big issues with lobbies is when organisations hide their funding and support as it appears happens with some funding in support of fossil fuels (which when successful deflects disproportionate blame for climate change on livestock).
These organisations often have hired environmental scientists straight from college and such people are all well intentioned but quickly pick up the buzz words about leather using too many chemicals, too much water and using too much energy. They add to that information on a heavy loading of what get named as “toxic” chemicals and “heavy metals” and place leather promptly into an “evil” category. This is not helped by reports from reputable organisations such as Blacksmiths naming leather in the top ten worst industries in the world and the opportunity given to reporters and other campaigners who can still see very poor practise in places like Bangladesh - which we hope will soon end.
It is also shocking how many old papers persist, despite being completely outdated or completely discredited and are still quoted by so called experts. The internet has made it easy to find these inaccurate documents hence complaints about leather using arsenic still exist. One often quoted paper from the 1970s which talked extensively about chemicals no longer used has only recently been removed form the internet, after a great deal off effort.
The animal rights and vegan organisations are harder to work with as their position is absolute and cannot be influenced. In general we do not try and engage, only to correct obvious factual errors. These are generally well funded bodies with no listening mode. While the beliefs they hold are clearly sincere what we have found to date is a lack of policy of how the planet will look, or how people will be fed in the absence of a livestock element. When pushed on this we have invariably seen the discussion terminate or become unpleasant with comments along the lined that “leather is bad, and that is that.” While unpleasant it does seem to support that fact that our considered, logical approach based on good science as far as it can be determined is the right way forward.