The history of leather and leathercraft has very close ties to people all around the world and it has undoubtedly played a crucial part in the development of civilizations.
Our ancestors hunted wild animals for food and used leather to protect themselves from the elements creating crude tents, clothing, and shoes; throughout the centuries they have started evolving their techniques to be able to preserve, soften and make more flexible hides.
The earliest method was to stretch the hides and skins on the ground to dry, rubbing them with fats while they dried. This had a limited preserving and softening action.
Another process was smoking, which later became formaldehyde tanning, as this substance is found in the vapors produced by burning green leaves and branches. It was soon discovered that the rotting process could also be stopped by drying, carried out by exposure to the sun, or by the dehydrating action of salt.
Vegetable tanning was also known in very ancient times although it is not clear how the tanning action of the tannin contained in the bark of some plants (especially oak) was discovered.
Another method known since the earliest times is tanning, based on the use of alum, a mineral that is fairly widespread in nature, particularly in volcanic areas.
These methods, which gradually became more refined and efficient, allowed skins to be used in the ancient world and continued to do so for centuries after centuries up to the present day (Leather Resource 2008).
With the discovery and introduction of basic chemicals in the mid-1800s like lime and sulphuric acid, tanners gradually abandoned their traditional methods and leather production slowly became a chemically based series of processes (Brand J.J. 2009).
Today 85-90% of leather is chrome tanned and only 10-15% is veg tanned.
Leather is a byproduct of the meat industry which on its own is one of the major responsible for carbon emission in the atmosphere. Also, the use of hazardous chemicals during the tanning processes and their discharge into rivers pollute waters and consequently endangers the populations that live on the riverbanks, especially in developing countries, and their biodiversity.
In the past few years there have been a lot of movements to research sustainable processes to substitute the chrome tanning method and introduce mineral, synthetic organic tannages together with increased usage of the traditional vegetable tanning option and to develop new alternative materials to replace leather.
In addition to this, some of the main fashion groups have joined together, led by UNECE’s Sustainable Development agenda, to create and implement processes to safeguard the planet: for example the introduction of the traceability of the leather at all stages of the value chain (see Leather Working Group, LIA of Textile Exchange, The ID Factory) or the creation of a Regenerative Fund (see Kering’s regenerative Fund for Nature).
The objective of the traceability of the leather across the entire value chain is to monitor and improve animal and workers welfare, to implement sustainable practices in the production stages in order to minimize the harmful impacts and to maximize the positive effects (Gillespie 2019).
The Regenerative Fund for Nature created by Kering’s group for example helps farmers and growers that need support to transition from current agricultural practices that have an impact on climate and nature to more regenerative practices that restore nature and mitigate climate change.
New tanning methods, alternative sustainable fibers, traceability and regenerative funds are just some of the new developments that are changing the future of fashion to be sustainable.
References and where to learn more
Liberty Leather Goods team (2021) - The Incredible History of Leather - Available at:https://www.libertyleathergoods.com/history-of-leather/
Brand J.J (2009) - The History of Leather - Available at https://ezinearticles.com/?The-History-of-Leather&id=2186656 . Accessed [8th April 2009]
Leather resource (2008) - A story that began a long time ago - Available at http://www.leatherresource.com/history.html
Gillespie A. (2019) - Leather & Beef: Adding skin to the Game - Available at https://www.slideshare.net/trufflemedia/anne-gillespie-leather-beef-adding-skin-to-the-game. Accessed [22nd January 2019]
Kering Group (2021) - Regenerative Fund for Nature - Available at: https://www.kering.com/en/sustainability/safeguarding-the-planet/regenerative-fund-for-nature/
Leather Working Group - Traceability - Available at: https://www.leatherworkinggroup.com/how-we-work/traceability
The ID Factory - Introducing the Responsible Leather roundtable (RLRT) - Available at: https://www.theidfactory.com/blog/responsible-leather-round-table/
Rigby (2019) - Stone Age chewing gum reveals the history of Scandinavian - Available at: https://images.immediate.co.uk/production/volatile/sites/4/2019/05/GettyImages-74419827-crop-a898962.jpg?quality=90&crop=4px%2C129px%2C931px%2C401px&resize=931%2C396 Accessed [26th May 2019]
La Rose (2017) - A Thirsty Industry: fashion’s Colossal Water Footprint - Available at: https://images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/584738ff20099e6c2da92f74/1491339689395-J5LK5KLP3WY5FNOS02GT/fashion+sustainability?content-type=image%2Fjpeg Accessed [5th April 2017]