We all know that the great migration of the tanning industry from the western hemisphere to Asia was not because they were better at making leather or leather products. No, it was only because of the relocation of customers, cheap labour and the non-existence of anti pollution legislation. Even where some legislation did exist there was a lack of implementation or enforcement. This combination produced a tremendous financial advantage for which many people have been prepared to close their eyes. 

Fortunately, this scenario seems no longer to be quite the same. Thanks to modern communication methods, social media, YouTube, etc. the world has been confronted with the horrible realities and consequences of making leather in some of these countries. Action was and is being taken. Most clearly now in China, where the authorities have started to clean up polluting industries (not just leather). We have probably all seen the horrors of the tanning industry in Bangladesh on TV or online. Also in Morocco where interesting documentaries were made showing leather making in ancient ways that others in the industry in Morocco would prefer not to show at all. And we had the recent accident in Ranipet in India that killed several tannery workers. The list of problems could be continued for a long while. We shall not do that here.

Moving in the right direction

The point of this article is to debate whether these moves (to clean up the Industry) are in the right direction and will influence the global leather industry. I believe this is unavoidable. All the anti pollution measures cost money, lots of money, which must increase production costs. When increasing production costs the competitive situation in the countries concerned diminishes. It has to pay up for what the western world caused 20-30 years ago. And since what is bad for one is good for the other as it strengthens the situation of the tanning industry in the west or other parts of the world where environmental management is still lax (for now).

Today, more and more leather making activities are automated and computerised which also reduces the significance of wage differences. Future investment in Asia will not be available to the smaller tanneries, which are usually the dirtiest ones. Bigger factories and tanning groups will have to be created to build common treatment plants and finance it together. But working together is not the simplest solution where enterprises are often family owned and where the idea of sharing and cooperating with others will not be straightforward.  

From this point of view the western tanning industry seems on the winning side and could recuperate much (not everything) of what it lost through the years. 

It means that leather made in developing countries will become more expensive. It also means that if finished product prices cannot be increased accordingly (for reasons of economy, leather substitutes, competition, etc), profits may reduce. Recently, we have seen a number of company results where sales are up but profits are down. Maybe they are connected. Many of us are surprised that some of the big brands (luxury leather goods, even cars for instance) can make such a fuss if they have to pay US$5 more for a product they sell for thousands. But the answer is clear if they have to pay more but do not get more. If no other solution is found, profits will also diminish. Shareholders do not like that! It will be bad news for the brand.

Several consequences

So there are many consequences, commercially and financially. But environmentally it may be good news for the western tanning industry. And if the workers in those countries can live longer, healthier and the planet becomes a cleaner place for our children and grandchildren it is fine with me. No matter what the price of leather may be.      

I welcome your opinions so join the debate.

Ron Sauer