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Once upon a time, long ago, the tanning industries of what we term the developed world were part of a neatly established structure. European and the USA countries had trade associations, research associations and tannery chemists associations. The national bodies linked into regional and international ones like the International Council of Tanners looking after the world of trade associations and the IULTCS as the global unifier for the research bodies and tannery chemists. The chemical and machinery companies joined the IULTCS.
As a technical person who moved into general management I got involved in both. So I remember 45 years ago big IULTCS meetings in places like Prague and equally enormous ICT tours around Buenos Aires. Problems began when emergent countries moved from being suppliers of raw and semi-processed into major tanning centres. Some felt they were too poor to pay the fees to join the international clubs and most refused to continue export of raw and part processed material, which offended the free trade approach adopted in the early 20th century by the old school countries. So as the "old countries" watched their tanneries disappear and production disperse around the world the organisations began to implode.
Most of the "old" centres had established systems of sizeable industry and government payments but with industry squeezed and government money switching off this largely ended. Research organisations turned into commercial testing houses or consultancy bodies and many trade associations slid into one-man bands. Concern over the free trade issue added to the global dysfunctionality and at the turn of the century the ICT did not need a conference venue, a corner of the hotel bar was big enough.
Yet the industry issues did not go away. Indeed they were getting more serious and the vacuum being left was not helpful. Some countries like Brazil, Spain and Italy kept strong institutions but they were the exception and turned more to nation branding.
Renaissance of sort
Now a little common sense has returned and there has been a Renaissance of a sort. The free trade issue has been put aside enough for everyone to be meeting together and a lot of countries are now playing a full role. There is a lot to do. While they were sleeping hundreds of companies in China put "synthetic leather" into their company name and it is a term that looks almost impossible to remove. REACH turned up also, and while it has many good aspects to it there is no doubt that it pulled a lot of cash away from the research and product development side. The current EU look at leather labelling will be vital as competitive threats increase.
So do not think that the moment is over for these ancient institutions, quite the reverse. They need more support than ever. But if they want all of our support they need to be careful not to breed resentment of some of the new bodies that have a role in the new world of knowledge leadership and changing industry configurations. The LWG has been a revelation in demonstrating how the the whole supply chain can work together to, more or less, agree standards for tannery performance and behaviour in the challenging modern world.
Equally after decades of avoiding confrontation with those who claim leather to be a "toxic business" it now looks better to let a stakeholder group from all those who rely on leather to defend leather and promote it to the new generations of consumers. An organisation that can be responsive, fleet of foot and take a few risks is needed here. Hence we have Leather Naturally!
The more traditional bodies have a huge agenda and a lot on their plate. So, too, do the newer ones. This is 2014. We are not making a lot more leather than we did last century but we are doing so in tougher times. We need reinvented older institutions and plus new ones to fight for a proper and fair business environment for all the leather industry.
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