We spoke to seven trailblazing women – Asma Khan, Vandana Shiva, Helen Browning, Caroline Bennett, Dee Woods, Alice Robinson and Sarah Grady – who are each pushing sustainability, regeneration and ethics forwards within their industries and making space for other women to do so, too.
We find out how their work is changing the face of the industry and women’s place in it, the challenges they’ve faced along the way, and what more there is to be done…
Alice Robinson and Sara Grady’s story
Alice Robinson and Sara Grady have embarked on producing leather from cattle hides raised on regenerative farms in a bid to “link regenerative agriculture with material culture,” says Sara. The duo aim to create a new supply chain by adding value to hides, which are often be discarded.
Instead, they want to use the natural leather hides in a meaningful way – one that is a world away from much of the polypropylene-coated leather we use today.
They came together in 2020 to create their company, Grady + Robinson, which is in its early stages of producing what they call British Pasture Leather. Neither come from a farming background: Alice trained as a fashion designer and Sara’s worked within sustainable food and agriculture in America.
It was here Sara saw the high standards animals were raised in, and then understood the animals were “actually crucial to the health of the farm ecosystem”, and soil health. She realised we had “an obligation to use all parts of the animal” which even turned her from a vegetarian into a carnivore.
Meanwhile Alice became “very disillusioned about the prospect of being a designer that made clothing”, so instead looked to making products. After working with a local farmer near her hometown of Shropshire, she designed a collection using the hide of a single bullock for the V&A museum.
Now, the duo are working with Pasture for Life to obtain hides as it “represents the highest standard of a certification programme for livestock agriculture,” says Sara. “It gives us assurance that we’re sourcing hides from farms that are delivering all of those positive impacts from 100% grazing operations,” she adds.
Although Grady + Robinson are currently only producing prototypes of British Pasture Leather, Sara thinks “we have begun to have an impact on the sensibility and awareness and consciousness of the designers we’re interacting with“.
One of the most important things they’re doing is bringing value to the hide, as it’s generally worth just 1% of the overall carcass’ value. Adding value means it “becomes a co-product of those businesses,” says Sara, rather than just a by-product. They do this by “giving an additional payment to the farmer, to reward them for adding more value to it,” she adds.
One of the challenges they’re finding, though – which Sara likens to the issue many businesses in the sustainability sphere have – is “the leather that we’re producing is more expensive”. They’ve also decided to keep all production in Britain, and use vegetable tanning to keep their practices inline with their ethos, which adds to the cost.
Yet, they both feel it’s true that whenever there’s challenges, there’s huge opportunities. They think being two women entrepreneurs, and coming in “with such interest and intrigue”, as Alice says, in an undeniably traditionally male-dominated industry, has actually been beneficial. “The leather industry in Britain has sort of been dwindling in the last 70 years. So if you show interest in it, then so much help comes your way,” explains Alice, which feels like new life is being breathed into the industry.
These challenges aren’t the biggest issues though, as there’s also plenty of work to be done to shift what Alice describes as “people’s intolerance to imperfection” in leather products. “Natural leather is just full of story,” says Alice in regards to the natural grain, look and feel of leather. “We really aren’t acquainted with leather in any way that tells us about the origins of that material and about the life that that animal lived,” adds Sara.
There’s clearly a long way to go, but change is starting to happen.
International Women’s Day, marked annually on 8 March, celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, across the globe, who are dismantling discrimination, driving equal opportunities and empowering women and girls.