For over thirty years I have come to China at least twice a year because it has been changing so fast, but in recent years it has felt to be on a fairly steady, more predictable path. No longer. At this All China Leather Exhibition we are watching out for more changes than any industry deserves to have to handle all at once.

Having lived through a career where American dominance has been widely supported as it pushed the world towards free trade, western shareholder capitalism and democratic governance styles it is perplexing to see it dismantled in only a couple of years. All this precisely at the moment when the leather industry has lost demand, the chickens coming home to roost after decades of refusing to invest in any serious strategic marketing, while African Swine Fever has led to a rush to buy more beef.

Simultaneously, this week our industry starts to feel the impact of the latest round of U.S. – China tariffs which will certainly start raising the cost of footwear and garments at retail in the U.S., precisely as the world has starting talking itself towards a recession. Add to this the currency instability as a result of the falling yuan and sterling confused by the British Brexit turmoil. It is hard to estimate how this mixture of macro and micro impacts will end for the leather industry and no doubt the chin-wagging off the stands will be as important as any talks on them.

Leather Industry only as strong as its weakest link

Certainly, supply chains are being re-considered, and not only in geographic terms but also in material content and in levels of automation. Is this the moment to pull in Industry 4.0 to kick in, and is leather ready to join the party as was asked at the Shanghai World Leather Congress two years ago? What we do know from history is that tariffs lead to cheating and all manner of evasions and distortions: big money and livelihoods are at stake.

At the end of the day the leather industry has to hold true to its values. Properly made leather is clearly one of the best materials to help society deal with climate change, biodiversity and planetary sustainability. Even where robots have become involved leather and leather product manufacture uses a lot of labour, developing skills and continuing to pull or keep people, male and female, clear of poverty. We must maintain our integrity and fight for every tanner in the world to behave with responsibility in their manufacture with proper treatment of workers and the environment.

This is the moment when as an industry we must stand together; and are only as strong as our weakest link.

Dr Mike Redwood

September 3, 2019.

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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