Launched by two leather rookies, Billy Tannery is the first ever entirely British goat leather brand. Shocked at learning that almost all goat hides end up in the trash, Jack Millington and Rory Harker, two friends, decided to create a sustainable goat leather brand at home in the UK.
Neither of the entrepreneurs behind Billy Tannery, their startup, came from the leather, or even garment, industry background. But when co-founder Millington discovered that every year thousands of British goat hides were going to waste, he had an idea. Despite spending most of his working life in advertising agencies, he found the idea of plunging into the leather industry “just too interesting an opportunity to turn down.”
Currently, nearly every goat skin left over from the British meat industry is destroyed; the remainder is usually exported for tanning abroad. For the founders behind Billy Tannery, neither of these options seemed particularly good solutions given the carbon footprint of shipping stuff across the world.
“In food, and particularly, meat where an animal’s life is involved, we think it is particularly important to avoid needless waste,” he says.
It’s not just the waste that posed a problem, however; the industrial tanning methods used in many large-scale tanneries are questionable in an already heavily-criticized fashion industry.
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The process of leather tanning can have huge consequences for water systems and local populations, he says. Runoff of heavy chromium, widely used in the leather tanning process, leaches into surrounding soils and water systems and has been found to cause severe respiratory problems and kidney and liver damage among a host of other health problems.
Millington argues that this does not need to be the case. If sourced correctly and tanned with care, leather can be a good sustainable clothing option.
“Not only is it a by-product but treated correctly it will last for hundreds of years, meaning you don’t have to constantly replace your products,” he says.
To try and avoid falling into the less-than-sustainable leather camp, Millington says that their entire tanning process was designed with the environment in mind. This means avoiding using dangerous chemicals in the tanning process, and instead opting for bark extracts. As a result, their wastewater is not harmful to both the environment and the workers.
Plus, he says, there’s less of it. “We use a recycling method that means that over 80 percent of the liquids are reused from batch to batch, rather than being replaced each time as is standard.”
As one of the only goat leather tanneries in the country, there was potential for goat leather products to be a hard sell with customers, especially at a time when animal products, in general, are facing some bad PR. For the duo, however, this appeared not to be a concern.
Combining Millington’s advertising experience with Harker’s background in branding and graphic design, the pair figured that as long as they could create a desirable enough brand, they could solve the problem.
A huge part of the Billy Tannery branding is the ‘Made in Britain’ label they flaunt. Tapping into the nation’s long history of manufacturing, they’re hoping to bring something new to a now slightly diminished industry. But the key appeal seems to be the transparency with which they operate.
“The fact that we trace our entire supply chain and are very open about it seems to resonate with people,” Millington adds.
Billy Tannery has an entire section of their website detailing where their products actually come from. Currently, all of the hides they use come from goat meat company Cabrito, who rely on goats considered a ‘byproduct’ of the dairy industry that would otherwise be euthanized after birth.
In this sense, Millington says, Billy Tannery is using “the by-product of a by-product”.
As newbies in the leather industry, it took funding from Kickstarter combined with some supportive family members and a loan from Virgin to get them off the ground. Now, he adds, it’s just a case of upsizing their drying space so they can tan and produce more. (As of now, they can only tan about 80 skins at a time.) Hence, they refer to themselves as a micro-tannery.
After designing a small collection of bags and accessories, they’re foraying into a new territory — goat leather sneakers.
“Britain has a long history of fantastic luxury manufacturing but it only remains strong in a few sectors, such as shoes made in our nearby town of Northampton.”
The question is if people are interested in this sustainable luxury to give rise to more miro-tanneries around the country and revive a new generation of artisans in the leather sector. Billy Tannery hopes that they can cut down on the “leather miles” that currently take place across the globe.