A decade ago, Stephen Emmott wrote a dreadful book predicated upon frightening readers about the never-ending growth of the world population. He used a graph from 10 BC to 2100 AD to argue that an almost empty chart followed by exponential growth by 2100 would take us to a population of 10 billion and beyond.
We were doomed, he said, but in more explosive language. He was building on fears voiced in the late 20th century when, in just under 50 years, the global population had doubled to four billion in 1975. It has just doubled again, reaching eight billion last November. Do we now ask whether the population will double again to 16 billion?
That same year, a decade ago, the geographer Danny Dorling published a book with the same title interrogating the UN population projections and pronounced that measuring actual births in recent decades and the underlying trends meant that getting to 10 billion was unlikely and we might not even see nine billion. With more care about food waste and distribution, we could feed everyone and needed to turn our attention instead to climate change and rising inequality as the real matters of concern.
At that time, the UN was already revising its projections downwards and has made more reductions since. The latest figures, published in March 2023 and produced for the Club of Rome, state that carrying on as normal will lead to a peak a bit below nine billion in 2046 and then a decline to 7.3 billion by 2100.
The Giant Leap
If, on the other hand, cash can be found for education, health and reducing inequality, while boosting economies with green energy, we might reach a high of 8.5 billion as early as 2040 but then fall by about a third to around six billion in 2100. They call this the “Giant Leap” since it requires an ambitious plan which, frankly, current geopolitics and dysfunctional democracies do not look likely to permit. But it is worth fighting for as it should reduce demand for ever more materials, calm the ever-accelerating consumer rush and create greater opportunities for natural, high-quality and long-lasting materials like leather to do well.
There is a fine line here in politics as our polarised world likes to create stereotypes, falsely lumping people into one side or another based on their expressing one or two opinions. Merely because a tanner accepts the science behind climate change does not mean they wish to destroy the capitalist economy, nor does support for a strong luxury goods sector imply support for banning books from libraries.
We have to oppose being pigeonholed in this way and allowing the algorithms of social media, driven by a desire only to sell more advertising by doing so, will only make it worse. More than ever, it is science that matters, and science understood and explained by those honest interpreters rather than lobbyists who cherry pick or journalists skimming the facts for a story then moving on.
In reality, marketers have plenty of experience here. Most will remember the 1990s with yuppies (young upwardly mobile professionals), dinks (dual incomes, no kids) and GLAMS (greying, leisured, affluent middle-aged spenders). Since then, HENRYs (high earners not yet rich) and CARLYs (Can’t Afford Real-Life Yet) have arrived. More humorous than the politics of everyday life but foolish if used without proper research and understanding.
What is serious is that misreading or misrepresenting facts has become part of our lives and we need to be wary of it. Our industry has been rocked over the last 20 years with bad data published by apparently creditable bodies like the FAO, and then being used and abused even when subsequently corrected. Examples include methane, chemicals used in the leather making process and, until recently, the Higg Index.
While the sustainability staff who work for brands are well trained, thoughtful and determined to do well for society, only a minority are actually scientists. They have to take on face value what is said or published by supposedly reliable bodies. Sadly, it is not always correct.
On the other hand, the leather industry has many tanneries and suppliers who have been steadily investing in best practices over the last 20 years, regardless of whether the fad has been called sustainability, CSR, ESG or something else. Money has been spent to do the right thing and do it better. We now have scientific, externally audited data on LCAs, water and energy consumption, waste treatment, recruitment and training that can stand up to the most detailed scrutiny.
So, here we stand. We succeed only when we develop and maintain measurable data that is third party audited about which we talk honestly and transparently. We must continue to highlight where damage is being done to our industry by the use of incorrect data, or data that is being incorrectly analysed. And, when doing our medium and long term planning, we must do our research thoroughly and not build strategies on flimsy data that we are not sure about. Business always involves judgment, but guessing is a last resort.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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