Anyone interested in major global sports will have noted two recent events – the resignation of Jürgen Klopp as Coach of Liverpool Football Club on account of “running out of energy” and the charges against the head of the F1 Red Bull team Christian Horner over “controlling” behaviour towards his staff.
In separate ways, both tell the story of the very driven nature of all aspects of modern society. The polarisation, the rage close to the surface, the ease with which aggressive and intolerant comments get posted on social media and the expectation for immediate results, be it in business, sport or politics. All create pressures with difficult outcomes for individuals and society.
This is not to excuse misbehaviour, but rather to highlight an area where tanners have the opportunity to dig back into the best of history and hold to the underlying principles that we work with in our communities.
Be proud to make leather
Not that we should support the Divine Right of Kings, which Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, did when he approved organisations to go off and exploit America in the 17th century, or the interpretation of the Christian Bible that suggested “heathens” could be taken as slaves. Nor should tanners circumvent environmental regulations or abuse their labour force, as has been seen occasionally over the last 150 years.
But, looking at the fundamentals, I am convinced that tanners should be proud about the making of leather over so many thousands of years – the phenomenal biomaterial discoveries using smoke, brains, different oils and tannins to create more value out of already useful raw hides and skins cleaned from dead animals.
Nearly always, tanners used hides and skins thrown away by butchers and the smells blamed on the tanneries came from rotting flesh of these, particularly if heads and feet were left on. When there was an outcry over the odours in the Swamp area in New York, beside Brooklyn Bridge, most tanners had long moved upstate. It was the butchers’ hide dump that was the issue. Similarly in London, the butchers agreed to put their hides south of the river in Bermondsey and, since there was water and bark, that was where the tanners relocated.
We need to take time to look at the best of our past – our technologies, our role in the community and society and our ability to lead technological advances in materials. To make the very best out of a waste material – benefiting everyone – and build upon it. We should not be carried away by so-called modern trends in business and society.
Those who are up to date with social media will know the Digital Word of the Year for 2023, as chosen by the American Dialect Society. Coined by the journalist Cary Doctorov in an article explaining why it is too late to save TikTok, the word is “enshittification”.
We all recognise how digital businesses have followed the route of gaining huge followings by providing useful services free of charge, but then find ways to “monetise” these services. Having trapped people in their ecosystem, they use the huge wealth created to build powerful monopolies, kill off competition and intimidate governments.
This system of consolidation to create monopolies or oligopolies has occurred in most business sectors over the years. Think of footwear, luxury and sports in the leather area. Often the outcome is seen in short term gains as companies pull value away from consumers and even business customers to benefit their own bottom line. First the tanners are squeezed, then the consumers get short changed.
As Doctorow explains: “Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die. I call this enshittification.”
If you wonder why you see fewer posts from the people you follow, it is because they deliberately show you what they want to you see and your requirements now have lower priority. This increases their income and the social media platforms use their wealth to build the scale to get their way on regulation, taxation and all business regulation.
An environment is thus created where even employees cannot walk away from increasing mental anguish and stress. The algorithms that feed your social media mean it is no longer social, no longer good for news or information. It is about earning money through entertainment and biased information. It uses up your time and brings out the worse in everyone.
Who is therefore surprised that football fans get angry when they see rich owners extracting huge wealth from soccer clubs while traditional supporters cannot afford tickets to watch? Or when water supply companies pollute beauty spots with raw sewage after 30 years of extracting immense dividends and leveraging the company into levels of debt that they will never be able to pay off? Enshittification is a good word for all this.
Cory Doctorow thinks that the only thing left to do for TikTok is to kill it with fire, but the tanning industry is not yet infected and has kept many good fundamentals. The idea that a boardroom meeting might plan to make something that is bad for users but good for the company needs to remain anathema.
The joy of leather
Tanners must reinvigorate the vision, the soul and the joy of leather. We must get ahead of all the others with transparent, ethical sourcing, offer wonderfully smelly store experiences and the chance to repair products. In leather, respect for our people and for our product is vital, as is the sustainable lasting value we must continue to offer consumers. And keep leather making joyful.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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