Mike Redwood

Columnist


One of the reasons that brands originally came into existence, forgotten in the history of capitalism, was trust. Brands were companies that had earned the trust of their customers and could be relied on to always sell the same quality. Consumers could be certain what they were getting was exactly as promised. In an economic climate where cheating was the norm, this marked a major advance.

The leather industry was not exempt and historians enjoy reminding us that 500 years ago in the UK, laws were passed to stop the selling of leather in candlelight after customers were finding three skins in a dozen consistently substandard. Last century, sole leather tanners often added glucose and salts to increase the weight – veg leathers were sold by weight – but not the quality. A U.S. Bureau of Standards report of 1919 made the point that adding these adulterants was about making money rather than better leather. An important matter since 504 million pairs of shoes and boots were made annually in the U.S., five pairs per capita.

One tale from the 20th century recounts the selling of a square foot of leather that was so small that customers had to buy 13 to get the equivalent of the normal 12. If true, this comes close to the modern term “shrinkflation”, which we are seeing in our foodstuffs today. A bar of chocolate retains its price level but, after purchase, consumers realise that it is in fact smaller than it was before.

All the legal niceties have been followed and the confectionery company advises that the precise weight is marked as required on the back, but we all know that the consumer is being cheated. Inflation may have made a price rise appropriate but sneaking it through in this way is definitely not.

Where is the brand integrity?

Often, I have been loudly challenged that, instead of using the term brand integrity around leather, I should be talking about jobs. Perhaps, but one follows the other in the leather business. Anything which damages the global leather brand will damage jobs in the industry. Slave labour, child labour, environmental harm, thoughtless raw material sourcing and so many other major points have shown the damage that can be done to a defenceless industry and push leather towards a low value commodity or a big loss of market share. Both will wreak havoc on the chance of offering everyone the opportunity to have a fair wage for their work, which underlies the whole value of leather.

ESG must remain at the top of the agenda

It was notable that environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues had disappeared from the agenda of the recent Davos (World Economic Forum) meeting, which was busy chasing AI as the biggest new thing. But ESG must remain top for the leather industry as it offers the USP (unique selling proposition) which will allow leather to survive and prosper.

Battling for sustainability and good behaviour in management is what gives companies, brands and products credibility. Those U.S. states that have mandated a move away from banks that support ESG are finding they are having to pay hundreds of millions of extra dollars in borrowing costs.

We need to constantly remind ourselves that there is no value in playing with shrinkflation concepts or greenwashing in any form. They all rebound and cause damage. Well-made leather is a sustainable material, and we need to work to ensure that it is fit for purpose, will last a long time, encourage users to design for repair and has the beauty and elegance that goes beyond mere instant gratification. That way, you can stand up proudly and ask for a fair price that allows every craftsperson in the chain to earn a fair wage.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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