Location theory in the leather industry

The Redwood blog
Published:  01 September, 2013
Mike Redwood

If you want to understand why tanneries locate and relocate you have to read a book written in 1937. Hoover's "Location of the New England leather and footwear industry" is often mentioned as the seminal work that started off the management science of economic geography. Certainly it is an excellent piece of work. 

The necessary materials for the leather industry were hides, tan bark and running water, he said looking back at the previous one hundred years. Production costs did not vary enough to affect location significantly. On the other hand water was a big restriction after which tan bark was the most expensive to transport. Transportation in the US at that time was expensive so we steadily saw a move as tanneries got larger out of downtown New York (where the butchers were) out to the west to get nearer to the bark. So right up until 1880 larger tanners were located close to tan bark and where there was water. Hence a big development in the Catskills and the Adirondacks.

But in 1880 things changed as described by Hoover. Industry worked out how to develop domestic bark extracts, concentrated vegetable materials started to be imported from abroad and mineral tanning, chromium began. This meant that tanneries did not have to be near forests any more, and with expanding transportation routes from rail and canal location options began to open up. As the interior opened and refrigeration developed into an affordable and effective technology the meat packing industry moved west and with them many of the tanneries. Tanneries in the forests closed and those of us who entered the industry in the 1960s and 1970s remember a concentration of major plants in the coastal New England area - serving the Greater Boston shoemakers - and in the Milwaukee and Chicago close to where the meat packers moved in the late 19th century.

Since then neither water nor chemicals have really limited tanneries in terms of larger scale location. The two issues of importance are customer location and raw material supply. So in the US the big tanners opened wet-blue operations in the new mid west centres of cattle rearing while their East Coast crusting and finishing operations were just too distant from their customers who were relocating into Asia and Latin America, with China becoming the massively dominant destination.

Now, as we discussed last week (The Speed of Change), China is moving on and is not the final destination. Footwear production was always footloose and its on its way again. Buyers have been putting new visas in their passports and returning to old ones that are being reborn. The PC-16 concept identified the 16 countries expected to be first in line, but these were not leather industry specific. When we think about what the leather industry will do we need to think about raw material and customers, with raw material increasingly trumping customer proximity as we recognise that steady supplies of available quality hides and skins are going to be the tanners future lifeblood. Hence the rapid move we have seen to Ethiopia, the determination to stick with Bangladesh despite the dysfunctional government and apparently greedy tanners failing to resolve their horrendous - yet easily surmountable - waste management issues, and big developments in Brazil.

One final thought caps all this off.  If it no longer makes the economic sense to ship huge volumes of US hides in wet-blue and crust to Asia just to ship them back as finished product where should those hides be fully processed and the articles made? Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean all look likely prospects; but what about the US itself?

Mike Redwood

mike@mikeredwood.com


About the author

It is now two years since Mike Redwood was asked to become the spokesperson for Leather Naturally! This voluntary role fits well with Mike’s long held belief that the leather industry needs to become much more consumer oriented. Redwood has a portfolio of jobs. He works with the newly formed Institute for Creative Leather Technologies at the University of Northampton and teaches marketing at the University of Bath. Before transferring into marketing Mike trained and worked in the leather industry as a technician and tannery manager in the UK, Italy and Latin America with a number of major businesses such as Barrow Hepburn, ADOC, Pittards, Gruppo David, FootJoy and ECCO.

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