Leather is used to make things. Tanneries seek out manufacturers that use leather as the sole or shared component in the article being made. That the leather is a “component” leads to discussions about the role of ingredient branding, reminding us of campaigns such as “Intel inside”, NutraSweet and “Gore-Tex”. Yet we must not allow such exciting topics (at least to marketers) to lead us to ignore the actual person who buys those articles.
Given the diversity of articles with leather, those consumers are to be found all over the world and at most economic levels. And, at an economic level, things have changed over the past three years. Those newly entering the “middle classes” used to buy wallets and purses for their change and notes, but digital money has made that an obsolete exercise in many emerging economies where the mobile phone is used to hold money and make payments. Those aspiring to get on in business used to buy an executive-style briefcase but with phones and laptops now dominating that has diminished too.
There is also a bigger picture. For the past 20 years, there has been a strong trend of pulling people out of poverty all around the world but, in 2020, the World Bank believes that reversed with the number in extreme poverty slipping by over 10% to 719 million globally. Since then, things have got even worse with the rising cost of food as Russia has “weaponised” access to grain, fertiliser and energy.
Add in technological disruption and climate change and it is quite a cocktail. No surprise then that mental health issues continue to rise. It was 40 years ago when the American Psychiatric Association added post-traumatic stress disorder to the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”. PTSD is said to be caused by an event or series of events well beyond the normal range of human experiences.
Beyond marital breakdown, simple bereavement, broken love affairs, chronic illness or bankruptcy, but including proximity to death, near-death experiences, serious injury and sexual violence. Perhaps after these three years, all consumers are suffering from a degree of PTSD; certainly, untold numbers have faced horrendous issues as the result of war, extreme weather and earthquakes.
That might be thought of as a bit flippant, but these are stressful times and there are big ongoing consumer changes. Society is ageing quite quickly; the rich get richer while the poor a lot poorer. In many countries, food and fuel cost rises have pushed even working families into difficulty with the definition of poverty being continuously recast.
Whether you are making leather for small leather goods or leather for airline seats, you have to look carefully at what is happening. In my 1966 Filofax, I scribbled on the cover a quote from V.V.M.Rao: “The English language has five golden words: What, Where, When, Why and How”. They all have to be answered anew as to consumer behaviour that will lead to the tanner’s bills being paid. Who will now be buying those small leather goods and flying in those seats? Why? When? And so on until you have the answers.
Changes in spending
We are seeing high levels of frugality as some consumers watch their expenditure carefully, on one hand set against revenge spending by those who saved during periods of lockdown and want to make up for it now with high levels of travel and retail therapy. Deep down, the shifting times and generations have also started a move to more considered purchasing with less wasteful buying for short-term use. The longevity of leather is being evaluated anew, as is the fact that it is a useful material that turns up when we drink milk, eat cheese and meat, and enjoy seeing livestock caring for our landscapes.
We knew these things all along but, in the rush of technological advancement, influencers (for years APLF was telling us about Shanghai’s cool crowd of KOLs – Key Opinion Leaders) lead consumers head down into consumption at all costs to look right on the night. Reversing this will take time but, as the consequences are becoming more widely understood, change is happening and leather should benefit in the long run.
Yet we should be very clear that leather only benefits if we do not make assumptions about the complexity and diversity of the consumers who buy the many products made of leather. As tanners, we must invest in understanding as much as we can about them and adapting our incredibly versatile raw material to fully meet their needs.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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