The big rebalance

The Redwood Blog
Published:  19 May, 2015
Mike Redwood

Every now and then an industry stands back and rebalances. Now seems to be the time for the leather industry. The word that is pivotal is risk. High raw material prices increases the capital tanners employ, and since they live a precarious life in the squeezed middle the risk rises with high prices. 

Any mistake or miscommunication can create a big loss: perhaps a terminal one. Regulatory scrutiny is higher than before; trying to escape by doing the minimum in processing or waste treatment is a risk. And long supply lines appear to be one of the biggest risks of all as they heighten difficulties with traceability, ease of inspection, development time scales, sales and market prediction, money tied up on the water and the potential for inventory write downs.  

So as we see some Chinese shoe factories struggling to find labour at all, and country after country closing down tanneries that are non compliant or slip under the radar as the result of bribery or being too small to be picked up in the tax system a big rethink is going on. And it makes sense to focus more on time zone tanning with shorter supply lines, quicker response times and less guessing about what consumers will buy at some distant moment in the future.

So when I read Ron Sauer's ILM blog "Consequences of pollution in the tanning industry" and he asked us to start a debate I am happy to join in. It is a debate that has been going on for a long time, not least with a focus on the dreadful tannery conditions to be found in some parts of Bangladesh.

Yet I do not accept that there is any solution through taking advantage of these problems for short-term western benefit. Leather, properly made, pulls millions of people out of poverty as every hide or skin tanned creates large numbers of jobs making shoes, garments and other goods. Leather industry employment in places such as Bangladesh, Morocco, Pakistan and elsewhere in the emerging markets is important. And by ignoring it and trying to gain advantage from it we do neither the employees or our industry any good. The dreadful pictures and press articles will remain for the anti leather absolutists to add to their animal rights arguments and the world will get no better. We need to find ways to pull these industries up to minimal acceptable standards, and all at Leather Naturally! are pleased that such moves are now planned.

With great raw materials and a large population of wealthy families the attraction of short supply chains for well-crafted leather items of every sort is obvious. This offers new opportunities once again in places such as the USA and Europe and is why France can demonstrate taking market share back from India and China over the past five years. We should let this happen through rational thought rather than emotionally scoring points against emerging markets. 

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Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

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