Mike Redwood


International Leather Maker

I first went to India in the 1980s to do a project with the Tata Group in Dewas, a small town close to Madhya Pradesh, hidden away in the centre of this huge country. The ambition of Tata Leather was palpable and well-founded based on everything I saw: the scale of the operation, the quality of the plant and equipment and the excellence of the staff. Clearly strengthened by the great diversity of people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds working successfully together.

When we started looking at a new computer system, they brought in some staff from their computer business near Mumbai and we spent a Saturday off-site in Indore going through requirements and specifications. Remember, in the early 1980s we were at the leading edge of putting these ideas into industry.

Six months later, the system was up and running. It was clear that, technically and scientifically, India had the foundation to be a leading country globally. Given the size and employment opportunities, Indian leather clearly had an opportunity to be a big part in the industry and that in fact was why Tata Leather had been established.

40 years on, when science and technology are even more important and creating disruptive situations for many industries, it is hard to believe that India has decided to remove both the periodic table for chemistry and Darwin’s theory of evolution from the country’s schoolbooks for under 16s.

Dig a little deeper and it gets even more curious. Fibres and fabrics are out, as is agriculture’s contribution to the economy and the sustainable management of natural resources. Pythagorean theorem and sources of energy are also gone, and even some of Faraday’s work on electricity and magnetism. Searching hard, I have not found any reference to Sir Humphry Davy and his work on identifying vegetable tannins but I’m not holding my breath.

Not complex, incomprehensible

Confused? These are areas where everyone would expect India to be chasing the most highly developed skills to take its rightful place in the world economy. It is quite astonishing. You could even say self-destructive!

Trying to cut out Mogul history and literature is similar, with the Taj Mahal such an amazing signifier of the long and important history of the entire subcontinent. The problem here is that this seems to have played into an opposition to the presence of its Islamic citizens today, vital in the Indian business of leather, as well as an illogical, sometimes violent attitude towards livestock management.

Balancing act

The Indian government has chosen, as is its right, to run a balancing act between Russia and the West over Ukraine. Some tanners have been reported as having increased sales to Russia and defended this as normal trading rather than a policy shift. On the other hand, India is an obvious potential beneficiary of the new China+1 policy and has already started to see gains in footwear and leather goods as supply chain worries are creating a desire to remove total dependence on China. Some of this will be recovery of lost historic business as, for many brands, China came after India. China had become much easier to deal with: less chaos, bureaucracy and with better logistics and efficiency.

Hopefully, India has started to put right some of these issues and has dealt with the muddle, corruption and lax enforcement of work safety, environmental and labour laws. We do continue to see unnecessary deaths occurring when staff are cleaning waste pits and the weird thinking over science education, cultural history and ethnic minorities has created a raft of new worries.

Given the Indian geopolitical antagonism with China, it must be a surprise to all in the leather and fashion sectors to see that Reliance Industries now has a deal with Shein to allow it to restart selling its ultra cheap fashion in the Indian market. Shein appears to be following a new route being adopted by Chinese companies to work through Singapore, but this does not change its business model or products.

Shein’s fast fashion goods appear to carry all the woes of opaqueness, major exploitative labour concerns, overuse of synthetics and Xinjiang cotton. Exactly the elements that India needs to be totally and transparently cutting out of its own manufacturing. Oh, and they steal designs, even from my own 21-year-old student niece with a tiny startup jewellery business in Scotland.

Even more confused? Join the club.


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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