In the stark light of the Amazonia fires, this week sees many of us deeply concerned about the UK’s ongoing trade talks with Brazil at a time when more ecologically responsible governments are applying pressure on President Bolsonaro. Couldn’t our own government be doing more to raise awareness of the environmental importance of product provenance and supporting consumers to make more informed choices?
As a crofting business, as well as a retail one, we are all too aware of how the voice of Scottish farming and their responsible approach to tackling climate change can sometimes to be lost. Issues such as sustainable land use, encouraging people to reconsider their diets and buy meat and other produce locally and seasonally are subjects many in the industry are very passionate about. I feel small businesses, such as ours, operating within less favourable and very rural areas can positively impact upon these concerns.
Such businesses, just like ours, don’t strive towards climate change and sustainability targets for political reasons. We are motivated by a desire to preserve the beautiful and fruitful landscape in which we are privileged to live and work.
Established in 1983, Skyeskyns, our family tanning business, based in Waternish on the beautiful Isle of Skye, is the sole remaining commercial woolskin tannery in Scotland and we have recently taken our next step towards a neutral carbon footprint.
I represent the second generation of the Hartwell family and am helping to steer the business through the 21st century, producing and stocking the highest quality, handcrafted sheepskins, leather and woollen goods and adapting the business to fit with the highest possible environmental and sustainability standards.
The tannery is the very heart of the Skyeskyns business, and our team of highly skilled craftsmen and women have recently taken another step along our journey of “treading lightly” by moving to a new, more sustainable, tanning process which uses mimosa bark.
The business ethos is focused not only on producing the best quality sheepskins but also on the principles of nature conservation and sustainable community development and land use. We don’t live and work on such a beautiful island without feeling responsible for and committed to preserving it for future generations.
Lambskins have always been a by-product of farming in Britain, where there are the highest standards of animal welfare. Skyeskyns works closely with suppliers to ensure that all lambskins are ethically sourced from local abattoirs, stopping them from being exported, minimising travel and putting money back into the local economy. Ensuring that the “fifth quarter” of the animal (remaining pieces of the animal which are not used for meat production) are diverted from waste and turned into something which can give long-lasting pleasure is something my family has always been passionate about.
Beyond this, the next logical step in the process, after hugely successful trials, has been to introduce the mimosa bark to tan all of our sheepskins. An ancient, traditional, hand-crafted and natural process, mimosa tanning travels into the past to take the business forward into a sustainable future, allowing for the production of the very best quality sheepskins and cementing the Skyeskyns reputation for quality. Eventually, everything produced within the tanning process will be compostable and spread back onto the family croft, supported by a series of reed beds.
In addition, Skyeskyns has strong “tree to wool to tree” ambitions. We are currently planning a scheme whereby for each mimosa tanned skin sold, a tree will be planted, with support from the Woodland Trust so that the business can fit into the big reforestation targets Scotland has committed to. As a result, the lifecycle of a Skyeskyns sheepskin will start with locally sourced skins and the renewably harvested bark of the mimosa tree and end with a local tree being planted.
Our ethos, ever since my dad first started tanning in 1983, is about trying to effect positive change and be the best we can be environmentally and otherwise. This production change is a key step forward in fully achieving our aims and values. When you tie in all our other efforts to reduce our carbon footprint, from running an electric vehicle to using recyclable packaging, we are proud of the way in which the business is moving forward both commercially and environmentally. “Made by nature, enhanced by Skyeskyns”, as my dad used to say.
Working in and with the landscape, being mindful of heritage, legacy, conservation, artisan skills and the wider livestock industry is of critical importance to the business. We are all delighted to be working with nature in such a low impact and beautiful way. But we are not alone. There are countless other such businesses operating throughout Scotland within food and drink, lifestyle, health and beauty and many other sectors, each making their own changes to reduce their carbon footprint. They may not operate on an industrial scale but if you combine their collective efforts, the impact is significant.
All we desire is that consumers, and politicians, understand our efforts and consider the environmental credentials behind certain types of products before they buy them. Not only do all of these small businesses work in harmony with the environment, they also provide employment in sometimes fragile areas and contribute to the Scotland’s wider reputation as a country that is taking care of its most precious resources – its land and its people.
Jess Hartwell, Skyeskyns, www.skyeskyns.co.uk