Quite a porker

The Redwood blog
Published:  01 October, 2013
Mike Redwood

On September 25 the shareholders of US pork producer Smithfield Foods approved a takeover by the Chinese firm Shuanghui International for a cash sum of $4.7 billion. If you add in the debt that Smithfield holds the actual price is nearer $7 billion. News like this slides passed us as tanners as we consider this to be outside our remit. Meat, especially pig, does not appear relevant these days. We have hide prices to concern ourselves with.

In fact it is the reverse. We should be celebrating James Gaylord Muir as one of the great marketing minds of the industry. His inspirational thought processes came up with the name Hush Puppies (something to do with quietening barking dogs) that gave birth to a huge footwear industry, thriving today, based entirely upon the concept of making a comfortable casual shoe from suede pigskin and a rubber sole. A legend was born out of a creative mind, determined technology and wonderful marketing.

This was back in the 1950s and for the next two decades the leather industry did look to pigskin as an untapped source of material to make up the shortfall in leather as demand grew. While among a few the commitment was serious not much got developed and the big shortfall in leather never happened as consumers moved to trainers in plastic and textile. Only today are we beginning to truly recognise a supply issue with much more leather going into automobiles and leather goods while at the same time a rapidly growing global middle class increases its purchases of everything made in leather.

Today there is no pig skin tannery left in the USA. Other high quality pig skin tanners in Eastern Europe appear to have slipped into oblivion in the 1990s after the fall of the communism. So we only have a large pigskin tanning industry now based in China. The focus of its production is almost totally in value segments such as linings for footwear and suede for lower priced garments. As far as one can gather the tanneries are extensive and skilled and the quality is good. Yet the products made are essentially commodities and not really benefitting the “brand” leather.

There are some pointers here that our industry strategists need to consider:

White meat such as pig and poultry is the fastest growing area of the meat industry

It is difficult to get much leather from chickens but pig makes up an estimated 12% of all the leather in the world (only a guess as no one actually adds it up other than me as far as I can see).

As well as being the foundation for Hush Puppies pig skins used to be used for top quality leather goods and gloves.

So the question has to be asked why tanners and others in the industry continue to ignore the value of pigskin as a raw material for leather? Is our industry memory so short? Is the fact that it is difficult to process so much of a worry that we would prefer to ignore it? And why do Hush Puppies only talk about brushed suede uppers and ignore the pig skin element in their historic timeline? Is someone, even our whole industry, telling “porkies” (lies) here and trying to ignore the value pigskins have been in the past and could be in the future?

Even at 10% of the total pig skin adds up to well over 2 billion square feet of leather per annum. As raw material per capita becomes scarcer and we argue about the high price of leather leading to more substitutes how come we are leaving this potential for added value for the industry in the commodity basement?

Mike Redwood

mike@mikeredwood.com

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