Starved of news while we returned to learn that an essentially Asian problem had spread to the heart of Europe and a near traumatised Italy had faced a largely unnoticed acceleration precisely coinciding with Lineapelle. Italian café lifestyle and mixed generational living, that has given their society such blessings over centuries, became part of the problem and the older age profile of the Italian population lead to a higher death rate than in some more youthful Asian states.

The Italian leather and luxury industries, which have fought through all the global changes of the last fifty years, remaining leaders in the creativity, fashion and elegance of leather whilst also maintaining the essence of much traditional craftsmanship, looked out on an uncertain future. While mostly still working, links to customers and suppliers were interrupted as stores closed, consumers fled and transport became problematic.

For an industry that has lived off globalisation, we should have known better than most. Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development at Oxford University, wrote about it in 2009 and in more detail in 2013. We know Ian Goldin because in the 1980s he was one of the lead researchers for the first Landell Mills comprehensive study of the leather industry: the leather industry knew him well before Nelson Mandela got him to run his Development Bank.

Seven years ago, what he and his colleagues were writing and speaking about was that around the world increased mobility and population density had exacerbated the threat of a global pandemic.

“There are concerning trends surrounding infectious diseases. Firstly, rapidly evolving viruses such as Influenza, Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome – Coronavirus and HIV continue to thrive.

Should another pandemic arise, however, it is doubtful sufficient global capacity exists to deal with the loss of life, resulting in panic and the potentially crippling effects on the world economy.”

And he was clear that unlike previous pandemics, such as the flu of 1918-19 spread by troops returning from war and by sea, this Coronavirus would race round the planet because of modern connectivity and just-in-time pressures generated by globalisation. These make the threats more acute, and magnify the ramifications of poor coordination, which is what we are seeing from a World Health Organisation with diminished resources and individual regions and countries reacting in isolation rather than being ahead of the spread.

We need to manage globalisation
Other outcomes of the globalisation push we saw in the 1980s and onwards included long supply chains, pressure to uncover ever cheaper products, often regardless at the time of today’s attitude to CSR issues, loss of craftsmanship in many leather areas and a consumer used to buying too much at too low a price and throwing too much away or leaving it unused in the closet. And with all this, our precious material, leather, too often turned into a commodity. We appear to have seen this coming as an environmental problem but ignored the warnings that it would lead to a humanitarian and economic one. Globalisation is a power for good, but we need to manage it rather than let it control us.

In many ways I have experienced it all closely without realising it. On my first trip to Xiamen in 1987 to visit a glove customer, I wandered past a shop with animal cages outside near the old docks. They seemed an odd collection for a pet shop, and when I enquired, I discovered it was a restaurant. In Guanghzou on holiday in 1994 with my wife, in the market we passed a similar section where animals more suited to a zoo were being sold for food. The delight for “hot meat” meant we hurried on to avoid uncomfortable sights; but that is exactly the environment where the virus jumps across to humans.

And then, in 2006, after a three week Chinese trip at the time of the All China Leather Fair, I was hit by a virus which put me in hospital twice while doctors tried, and failed, to work out what it was. Not contagious, but it brought normal life to a stop and made things exceptionally difficult for over two years. In the end, the consultant merely noted “we get lots of viruses from China”. Perhaps it is to be expected in an exciting country that is so huge, has developed so fast with education and health services rushing to catch up, and still, with hundreds of millions yet to be pulled out of poverty.

Ramifications for the future are immense
Yet, we did not see this Coronavirus coming, and when China saw it in November last year, they were too excited about other things to recognise it for what it was, and what they were being told it was. And today it appears that the transparency we call for in leather is being abandoned by one or two world leaders as they adapt the narrative for domestic or geopolitical purposes. Professor Goldin’s thoughts were falling on deaf ears and still are.

I am clear that the end of this is a very long way off, and the ramifications for the future are immense. The recession has already arrived, it is not something that may happen in the future. Tanneries are bravely battling on, obeying their governmental health instructions, but the shops are shut, the automobile factories are closing and there are all sorts of elements that can bring supply networks to an abrupt halt. In the last twenty four hours I have been hearing of zips and cartons creating difficulties. Our supply chains are over complicated and too long.

Right now, all our efforts must go into survival and ensuring that in all countries the leather communities and their valued workforce get through this. Only once we bridge into that moment, some time in the future, can we consider how to put resilience into leather industry structure.

I remain convinced of the need to have a structure with a local tannery in the hinterland of the world’s biggest cities playing a major role in supplying to regional manufacturers. It is about time we used our 21st century skills to make industry 4.0 work for us instead of destroying our skill base and overproducing throwaway items made in fragile overextended supply chains.

Times are changing, but we – tanners not excepted – must play our role in forcing them to change for the betterment of humanity. Otherwise, Ian Goldin will be right to support that view that there is only a 50% chance that mankind will survive the 21st Century.

Mike Redwood
March 18, 2020
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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