Mike Redwood

Columnist

International Leather Maker


At the moment, more than anything, the leather industry needs to disrupt itself. New research and innovation are both badly required. A fixation on digital change and the power of AI are also relevant. Yet, for fundamental transformation, the real answer appears to lie with the young and the attitudes and developments they are bringing to our supply chain.

The simple tool of the design competition does many things. Above all, it gets college students handling and talking about leather. It is increasingly clear that the outcome of these encounters is hugely beneficial for leather, with strong positive attitudes developing through sheer delight with all the aspects of working with leather as a material and its true story.

Bring the leather industry to its senses

Tanners know how wonderful leather is, and how versatile designers find it to work with, plus all the scientifically proven attributes it brings to a world in crisis. Getting older generations to appreciate this is hard and the industry appears unwilling to fund the campaigns to do so. Yet, young designers and the small businesses they start up can bring the industry to its senses.

I have seen the large and fast expanding numbers working with leather in the U.S. and the UK, have visited a workshop centre of creative leather startups in Tokyo and learned of similar groups in China. They all want to know as much as possible about the origins of their leather supplies and view that understanding as integral to their endeavour.

There is little more powerful than the student supporter of leather. If tanners promise beauty, performance and sustainable characteristics, then they should be provided without compromise. Where the competitions extend to young makers as well as those who have not yet graduated, that determination for transparency and effectiveness in the offer is enhanced. Correctly so.

Link with agriculture

When young people use leather, they often start from the origin and link the farm all through the system, something which tanners largely stopped doing in the 1980s when the few “hide improvement” organisations closed. The volume tanning system has largely become dominated by large global groups, from the abattoir and meatpacker sectors through to major brands and retailers.

A 2020 report1 indicates that 1% of the world’s farmers control 70% of the world’s farmland. How is it that Bill Gates is the biggest private owner of farmland in the U.S. or Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum is such a large private owner in the UK? Big organisations are all adapting to new regulations, but their scale often makes it more formulaic than real. Young designers demand more.

Our governments should take note of the lobbying and marketing power of these oligopolies and be sure legislation does not work disproportionately against the small producers. It is too easy to produce blanket regulations which only the big organisations are able to meet. The leather supply chain has always been dominated by small and medium sized businesses from farmers, through family tanners to product makers. With leather, rarely does scale produce a better product, rather cost savings come at the expense of the environment and turn leather into a commodity. The price of cheaper products through “efficiencies” and “globalisation” remains too high.

I am delighted to be involved in the Real Leather. Stay Different. (RLSD) Africa Talent Leather Design Showcase 2024. This involves countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Africa is the only continent with a fast-growing population set to keep growing for a few decades more. It will also become a major consumer market, so more of its large leather production will be sold there as finished products.

Leather has been an important part of African society for a long time; in Ethiopia for over 2000 years, for example. Sold as an international commodity, most hides and skins from Africa get classed as low grade, especially the bovine and some of the sheep. Yet if, as I have done, you buy old African items or items made in traditional ways, the last thing you see is defects. The world should learn from this.

Everywhere world history shows us that the leather industry was not troubled with rejected or lower grade hides. Although more uses for leather were utilitarian, where surface defects were less important, as we look in our museums we see furniture, saddles, garments and endless other items that we admire without the slightest concern about damages originating from the raw material.

Many of these new business models, such as British Pasture Leather which I wrote about a few weeks ago, have similarities with food produced locally, as the hides and skins are made into leather and then designed into finished goods in a local or regional environment. This brings with it better raw material sympathy with the natural hide marks built into the design and appreciated rather than rejected outright.

We should all make sure design competitions flourish

While the large organisations can be an obstacle in seeking the best of leather, they can also do good by supporting leather education, research and backing the design competitions that will work to keep leather and tanneries alive. While the big alternatives to leather may offer better efficiencies those so-called efficiencies will nearly all come from a barrel of oil. Consistently regular and easy to use, and profoundly damaging to the world we live in. We should all join to make sure design competitions and like-minded initiatives flourish.

1 Uneven ground: land inequality at the heart of unequal societies. Anseeuw, W. and Baldinelli, G.M. International Fund for Agriculture Development 2020.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

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