Early civilisations, even before the ancient Romans and Greeks, were busy trading hides, skins and leather around the Mediterranean and other parts of the world. Different raw material types and qualities, along with varied tanning methods, meant that the material was highly differentiated. Various regions offered specific qualities not found elsewhere. The leather industry was very early to understand the value of globalised trade.
Around 30 years ago, the world embarked on its most determined push for trade expansion in the knowledge that improved communications and coming digitalisation would make it the most powerful period of globalisation ever. For some, the concept of free trade was loaded with ideology, while others held the belief that increasing international trade would boost GDP and reduce poverty.
By the early 2000s, when China was applying to join the World Trade Organisation, both Presidents Bush and Clinton argued in support of trade with China. Bush said: “Freedom is not easily contained. Once a measure of economic freedom is permitted, a measure of political freedom will follow. China today is not a free society. At home, toward its own people, it can be ruthless. Abroad, toward its neighbours, it can be reckless.”
There was a clear belief that, with China in the WTO, the world would get richer and China would become more middle class, better educated and therefore more open and democratic.
What appears to have happened instead is that China exported more and more products at low prices (but not necessarily low quality, creating the low cost “China Price” model made famous by Walmart’s publicised buying policy) and even more jobs were lost in older economies.
So, when the Financial Crisis was used by China, Russia and others to demonstrate the failure of democracy, the world suddenly flipped direction. The disillusioned unemployed in the old economies pushed for a more insular protectionist approach and China, along with many others, moved quite quickly towards authoritarian government with aggressive rather than cooperative attitudes. China’s publicised long-term industrial plan was all about independence in all major sectors. If in doubt, re-read the Made in China 2025 plan, published in 2015.
Leather as an area for collaboration
Yet, to face the bigger challenges of climate change and the loss of biodiversity, we need a more cooperative world, not a more divided one. While there are major issues of national security, areas for collaboration need to be found. Could leather be one of them?
It is hard for the leather industry to be successful if new international boundaries and divisions appear, so it is important that we retain as much communication and collaboration with China as possible. Most of us have made good friends with various Chinese tanners and business leaders over the last 30 or 40 years and it would be a mistake to ditch this two-way goodwill while governments work out their new dynamic balance.
The China Leather Industry Association (CLIA) and the Leather and Hide Council of America (LHCA) showed the way with their joint reception at the All China Leather Exhibition in Shanghai. At the event, both organisations said that they were committed to further cooperation with mutual interests in the trade of raw materials, chemicals, finished leather and leather products.
Separately, the CLIA was an early partner with the LHCA in the Real Leather. Stay Different. global leather marketing campaign. CLIA Chairman Yuzhong Li said the design competition has fully inspired the young generation’s love for leather: “The designs of the participants have demonstrated the insights and design concepts of young designers on leather. From them, we see the bright future of China’s leather and leather fashion.”
In supporting this campaign, both organisations are making a commitment to educate and promote responsibly made leather as a leading-edge material in a sustainably challenged world. The language used in this vital debate is increasingly hysterical and soon loses sight of actual facts, making these collaborations ever more important. They work steadily and effectively in spreading the beauty and versatility of leather for designers and consumers, along with the reality of its longevity and sustainability.
These last two points have also been made by the opening in the last few days of a £14 million (US$17 million) new “super tannery” by the Scottish Leather Group (SLG). The company’s leather is used in upholstering all manner of transportation in almost every corner of the world. Buyers are confident that the credentials of the leather are built on the foundations of 20 years of relentless investment to ensure the best environmental leather, rigorously measured and audited.
The new plant is said to incorporate all the learning from those last 20 years and means that SLG should continue to be a global partner, cooperating and collaborating with the world’s best brands wherever they are. Like many great tanners, SLG makes leather that is easier to maintain and lasts much longer than the new generation of materials, which pretend to deliver but routinely fail in their appearance, performance and audited claims.
The latest International Energy Agency report says fossil fuel demand must fall by a quarter by the end of this decade if governments want to limit the rise in global warming to 1.5°C since the pre-industrial period. Coal, oil and natural gas will all need to be replaced by clean energy at a rapid rate to keep the world on track. Leather can help, naturally.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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