Part of a considerable movement to protect both British craftsmanship and promote a sustainable business model, leather brand Billy Tannery use goat skins that would otherwise have been discarded to create beautiful and unique bags and accessories. We meet its founders..
Sustainability has become a major buzz word for brands recently. Being able to demonstrate your commitment to ethical manufacturing or promote your green criteria as key parts of your marketing strategy, is, these days, considerably good business sense.
But, for some businesses, sustainability isn’t just a secondary concern, or a nice promotional soundbite, it’s fundamental to the identity of the brand. Not least for Billy Tannery, a sustainable leather brand whose entire reason for existing comes from a need to reduce wastage and run a truly sustainable business.
Founded by childhood friends Jack and Rory, Billy Tannery makes bags, briefcases, aprons and accessories using beautiful British goat skins which are left over from the UK meat and dairy industry. Before Billy Tannery existed, UK goatskins were either destroyed, or occasionally shipped overseas to be tanned. After much of the UK’s leather industry collapsed in the eighties and nineties, the smaller tanneries that were set-up for tanning small skins closed. Given the UK’s rich heritage for leather production, and the dreadful waste of these valuable skins, Jack and Rory thought something had to be addressed. “For us sustainability is about questioning everything, and applying some common sense. Does that waste product really have to go into landfill? In most cases, we could be using it to create something useful.”
What Billy Tannery creates are supple, robust satchels, smart, sturdy briefcases, hardwearing, industrial-style aprons and simple, stylish accessories – all made using striking goat leather. “Goat leather has an especially pronounced grain that comes from the natural characteristics of each skin,” explains Rory. “A lot of the time, with industrially-produced leather, these natural variations are covered up by printing an artificial grain pattern on to the skin.
Our goat leather always retains the natural grain, which means that each of our products is subtly different and unique.”
Crucial to Billy Tannery’s identity, however, is how it produces all this while maintaining a short supply chain and supporting and investing in British artisan skills – though it has not been a journey of entirely plain sailing. The brand’s plan was to build their own microtannery, source wastage product goat skins from abattoirs and then make their products in a handful of workshops in the UK. “From the very start, we designed the brand specifically to keep the supply chain as short as possible, as we felt this was a key component for ensuring sustainability and transparency.
However we found out that, as no one had done anything quite like this before, the infrastructure just wasn’t in place.”
Through Cabrito, the goat meat company that is currently the source of all of Billy Tannery’s goatskins, the company were able to find out which abattoirs could provide them with goatskins, and start to build their network. “They were initially sceptical about a couple of idiots ringing them up talking about a new microtannery,” says Jack. “But we negotiated a price for the skins to be salted and kept until there were enough for us to take away.
Once they had also dealt with the tricky specifics of transporting animal products – something that required new licensing – the pair turned to finding a location for, and building, the microtannery, which would process all their skins ready for production.
BUILDING THE TANNERY
“Building the tannery was a really exciting, if terrifying, experience. It was a big gamble as we had to build it before we knew if it was actually going to work, or before we could start work on any other areas like product design,” says Jack. As luck would have it, a local tannery engineer had two wooden tanning drums that had been salvaged from a sheepskin factory which closed in the nineties. This was the turning point for Jack and Rory, who set about installing them and building the tannery. The pair then spent almost a year learning how to tan leather, under the watchful eye of industry veteran Paul Evans, who helped them to tailor the process to the equipment and the raw materials – always with sustainability at the forefront. Impressively, the tannery operates a uniquely sustainable process in that it recycles 90 per cent of the water used for each tanning process, rather than starting each new batch with thousands of litres of new water. Any waste water is stored and treated onsite, after which it is used as fertiliser on the surrounding grassland, which in turn feeds livestock. “So we in fact have a positive impact on our surrounding environment too,” says Jack proudly.
The final cog in the machine was to find workshops in the UK willing to accept small production runs. It turned out to one of the greatest challenges that Jack and Rory have faced so far. “Finding high quality workshops in the UK is a dark art of hushed recommendations, often impossible communication and plenty of trial and error with sampling,” explains Rory. “There are so few decent leather goods workshops in the UK, that understandably people tend to be very secretive about where their products are made.” The brand ended up working with an experienced industry consultant to review its manufacturing, and finally settled on a process which suited their initial needs, and gives the company plenty of scope to grow. “For us a big part of the equation is the relationship with the workshop, it has to be an enjoyable experience for everyone involved,” adds Rory.
Day-by-day, operations are dealt with by Jack, while creative director Rory works on all aspects of design and brand communications, from product design through to the look of the website and social media. “When it comes to design, our inspiration comes from the leather itself,” explains Rory. “For us, the best British design sits somewhere between restrained and bold, so we tend to start with a classic product style and then look to modernise and simplify it, while maximising the impact of our goat leather.”
This commitment to echoing the intrinsic British style is typical of a brand that understands exactly where it has come from. “We are proud to source, tan and make pretty much everything here in the UK,” says Jack. “From a practical point of view, this makes it easier for us to run our business, but from a brand perspective we can also be much more transparent about where our products are made, what they are made from and the people that make them.”
It’s still early days for a brand that is barely two years old, but already has plenty of strong credentials under its belt. Building the first new tannery in the UK for decades is a major achievement, while a recent collaboration of a limited-edition goat leather sneaker made with local shoemaker Crown Northampton – which featured in The Times – has been a highlight for the pair. And sustainability continues to feature high on their list of priorities. “We are always looking for ways to improve our tanning processes and make them even more sustainable, so we have recently been working on a project looking into the use of food and drink waste in our tannery. The early results have been really promising,” explains Jack.
“But, the thing that makes us most proud is hearing such positive feedback from customers. When a customer takes the time to email us to say how much they love their bag or other product, it makes all the hard work worthwhile,” adds Rory