Mike Redwood

Columnist


It is not so much a new normal as a totally new world. 2024 is clearly going to be a difficult year, dominated by the fallout from geopolitics. Geopolitics impacts almost everything and ripples through every aspect of society and business in every corner of the world. Whether a mere ripple becomes a tsunami is quite unpredictable. In 2024, too many actors are in play at once.

A broad network which overlaps with others

The leather industry is comprised of a complex network of businesses. We still try and view it in a linear way, but this is a grave error. With chemical companies, testing houses, third party auditing, machinery suppliers, shippers, financial requirements and so many others involved, leather is a wide and broad network which overlaps with many other networks that make up the world of commerce.

Geopolitics flow through all these networks and into leather. Rising shipping costs, interest rates changes, currency fluctuations, chemical shortages and slowing consumer demand all arrive at the tannery door this way. All of us are seeing the impacts today and they are creating problems now. They are all problems that can be handled except if they become extreme, all arrive together or if they get mixed up with conflict around the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Current enthusiasm to disregard non-combatant deaths and involve restrictions on shipping and key commodities adds to the concerns.

Geopolitics is also holding our attention in 2024 because so many countries are holding elections, with a wide spectrum of transparency and opaqueness. Outcomes are, in some instances, unpredictable while the leaders who might get elected are perhaps less so and appear destined to create further disruption to the rules-based order we have had for the last 80 years.

Energy, grain, shipping and rare earths weaponised

“Weaponisation” is a new buzzword being applied to energy supplies, grain, shipping, rare earth elements and uranium supply. Social media was weaponised long ago and now comes with added artificial intelligence. Water could be next or is it already involved? The battle to get climate change under check is being constantly eroded by fears for national security.

While we worry about the dangers inherent in a decline of globalisation and the potential damage to global GDP and poverty, the drugs and trafficking gangs are becoming more globalised and better organised. Modern day slave labour and financial scams mean they have many areas to make money and, as our countries choose to become more insular, our political and legal systems appear increasingly unable to tackle them.

Big technology firms and some other large companies now appear hard to tax and instead expect large government subsidies for locating parts of their business to provide employment. Lobbying has become dominant and, with it, the enthusiasm with which some politicians use their office to find ways to make money. Sometimes while in office and not just afterwards.

Be sure to view the big picture

What can tanners do? We work within this environment but cannot control it. Unlike many other industries, we do not have the unity to create an aggressive lobbying body despite our aligned interests. We must be clever and reactive observers, watchful and quick to adapt. Tanners showed surprising resilience throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and they cannot let that capability slip now. We do not know what is going to happen next.

Two further points are important. Firstly, we have been noting that the centre of the commercial world has been moving East for 30 years now, and the leather industry has seen this happen more than most. The rather meaningless term Global South does have some relevance to leather. It is now important for the present, and Africa with its growing populations will figure larger over time.

If we still see the leather industry as a matter of a Western business – U.S. hides going to China to return as footwear for the big U.S. brands – we need a correction. That era is steadily coming to an end. The three cities that APLF has been using in recent years – Dubai, Bangkok and Hong Kong – offer a much better viewpoint for the world of global leather than anywhere in the west. Italy obviously remains vital for its innovation and sheer creativity and France for its powerful luxury trade but to stand somewhere and see the bigger picture you need to be in Asia.

Secondly, we have to continue to speak truth to power about leather. We may not have the commitment to lobby to defend our industry, but we must at least continue to be faithful to our material and promote its truths to young and old, to every sector of society and commerce. Leather is a good material, a natural, renewable by-product that is not only part of the circular economy but was probably the very first example of it.

No one has ever made leather to be prematurely obsolete, it has always been made to last. It is a renewable resource that offers nature, beauty and history. It has a past to be proud of, but one that does not limit its current and future ability to play a vital role in the world of materials. As well as promoting it honestly and with transparency tanners must continue to develop and advance it; we should not imagine that the bulk of leather produced in 2040 will be produced in the same way as that being made now. Our raw material has been willing to adapt over the many centuries it has been in use, so must we as its custodians.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

Publication and Copyright of “Redwood Comment” remains with the publishers of International Leather Maker. The articles cannot be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the publisher.