Brands are notoriously greedy for margin so even those European ones who do not make in Asia tend to sneak into the extremities of Europe or North Africa for some of the production, often repatriating the article to their home nation in time to “legally” add the “made in” sign.

My colleague told me another story. The workers in China had become so good at the work that their hand stitching was so perfect that neither the brands or the customers believed some of the articles had been done by hand at all. It was altogether too good.

Back in the middle of the 19th century the English art critic, John Ruskin, sitting at the centre of the Arts and Crafts movement, wrote about the importance of imperfection. “In all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty.”

What a great argument to remind us that we need to find ways of properly using all grades of our hides and skins. I dined last week with CEO of a well-known international tanning group and his point was that we should first find good outlets for the lower grades and stockpile the top grades. His point was that 100% of the time we do the reverse; selling the top grades and sitting on mountains of lower grade stocks, sometimes for years. This is the wrong mindset.

Lower grade stock is treated as a commodity

This traditional approach almost always leads to a pressured sale of the lower grade stock, and it is treated as a commodity. Here lies the danger. Leather that is placed on the market as a commodity, rather than as a well-designed product, is always going to be the most vulnerable to substitutes. In Hong Kong one conference delegate made the point that in promoting leather we should not so often use the term “premium leather” since a lot of tanners make mainstream products. In a way he was quite correct, but all tanners must accept two points. First leather must be made responsibly, with proper treatment of people and the environment. Secondly, we must avoid the commodity trap.

Every tanner must harness the creative minds in their organisation to find ways of using the lower grades to celebrate irregularities in the material. Lower grades should not be driven by price, processed into plastic like leathers without thought, and stockpiled until the balance sheet forces a cheap sale.  Getting these grades right is where the real profit is made, and the non-leather competition kept at bay.

Dr Mike Redwood

July 9, 2018

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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