280 tanneries in 2045?

The Redwood Blog
Published:  20 May, 2014
Mike Redwood

We talk a lot in these days about urbanisation. It is one of the biggest mega trends in the world right now. Some experts suggest that in 2045 when the global population peaks at around 9 billion we will all be living in cities - 280 of them. That averages out at each city holding 32 million people. That is 280 places like Tokyo, or more likely like Chongqing in China where the city itself is about 8 million but its hinterland of small towns and rural areas takes the "county" to 30 million people. It’s a new way of defining a city according to population expert Danny Dorling.  

This is the world we need to get used to. With cities wealth increases, education improves and proximity to healthcare means that child mortality hugely improves. What is more in cities population growth quickly slows as children are more expensive to bring up and not needed in the same way to look after their parents in old age by running the farm. While we instinctively feel cities are bad in fact the evidence suggests otherwise.

Many of our colleagues in the west look at life in previous centuries in tiny towns and villages as being idyllic. Current research I am carrying out into the history of glove making shows this is quite false, in England at least. While life was perhaps good for the wealthy and privileged for ordinary people it was insanitary, unhealthy and in all respects pretty desperate. Access to clean water was difficult, not least because tanners had first priority and put their waste back in. Agricultural labour paid minimal wages so wives and children had to add to them by sewing gloves as out workers, often rising at 4am to walk into the glove factory to collect their work for the next few days. Even as late as 1856 we read "some of the work performed by these female glove-workers was excellent, and it was distressing to think that such a pittance was all could be earned for a whole week's labour, often performed by mothers at the cost of the almost total neglect of their young families.”

Ludlow, in central England, was one such town where glove making grew to a formidable size in the 18th century only to collapse when import restrictions were removed and better value French gloves began to dominate the market. By 1834 only 163 glovers were left in the town.

Today Ludlow is a beautiful historic country town on the tourist trail along the border of England and Wales and would be included in the hinterland of the "city" that links Liverpool, Manchester, Warrington and many other towns that form a big conglomeration, although not quite so conjoint as, say, Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

What Ludlow also have is a locally famous Ludlow Food Centre built on a large estate where meat, butter, milk, cheese and ice cream are all made and sold from the estate's own livestock. All the produce is prepared on site in view of the customers. Visitors can watch cheese, ice cream, sausages and the like being made through panoramic windows and the meat being carefully cut and presented by skilled butchers.

In a time when supply chain transparency and product origins are so important would it not be a target worth aiming for to have the hides and skins tanned locally also? Water and waste management issues would likely preclude the concept of mini tanneries, for some time at least, but regional ones make great sense; just as obviously in new urban centres such as Chongqing as in Manchester, or Amsterdam. Indeed one major tannery per city would make sense, with additional ones for specialist products in major pastoral regions.

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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