Mike Redwood

Columnist

International Leather Maker


This year, most of the global population will be voting in elections with varying degrees of transparency and democracy. The UK has recently completed its own, with 335 successful candidates becoming Members of Parliament for the first time, out of a total of 650. This is a substantial change at a moment in a chaotic period for the world, but it is change without destabilisation.

A need for change

We talk of change, even of disruptive change, being the norm in many industries, but how much do we really embrace it? In recent years, we have seen older tanneries in aging economies give way to new ones in emerging markets, but many are building decent waste management facilities. The failure of some to do so is a major stain on our industry and its organisations.

However, the overall transfer has been very steady as you go, often aided by the simplicity of a major increase in wet-blue trading. Processes have only changed marginally, little more than customisation of the industry standard. Thanks to a creative Italian leather machinery sector, there have been some major advances in productivity and technology but, beyond this, we remain an industry keeping up with new legislation or consumer positions on chemicals that should have been eliminated long ago.

A lot of the current crisis has resulted from the impact of synthetics. It has not been the biomaterials, which are yet to make an impact, but the old-fashioned PU-coated polyester and the like, now better made and marketed with lower, more stable prices.

The Corfam reaction

It’s worth looking back at how the leather industry reacted to the catastrophic launch of the “artificial leather” product Corfam in the 1960s; panic at the highest level. Corfam was planned to fill the gap in leather supply as the population expanded in wealth and size. As a byproduct, leather supply could not grow to match it.

Corfam failed and the cheers went up. Almost immediately, tanners started to make coated splits for the sneaker market. This was a useful way to make a little money out of the lower layer but, looking back, was turning suede into plastic really a good thing? In fact, it opened the door to other materials in footwear, as it was much more like a commodity article than leather. Leather’s once dominant role in footwear ended.

We can see the same issues in other sectors, not least when some of the biggest brands swap the simple leather black leather jacket for an ugly plastic polymer. At the recent Groundswell event in the UK, a farmer shouted: “Why do you call it corrected grain?” She did not agree that natural marks on the hides from her animals should be masked with thick layers of plastic. They are, after all, proof of life; the evidence that distinguishes leather from the monotony of alternates.

Looking back for insights

I am currently spending some time looking back at old formulations. Some I was taught at university but noted as passing into history as high-speed chrome tanning, paste drying, buffing, curtain coat impregnation, padding and printing became the future.

I was fortunate in my work experience to work in a heavy leather (vegetable tanning) yard and see these old methods in practice. A few brave plants still exist around the world. To relearn the processes, I can now turn to the old books, which I used to buy whenever a tannery closed. That was a common occurrence in the UK, and I often acquired them when I had to visit to inspect a machine.

Opening them now, I see “research department, Rose Hill Tannery, Bolton” or “Messrs. Wm. Walker & Sons, Ltd. Research Department Library” stamped or handwritten in the 1940s, 50s or even earlier. Most sizeable tanneries had research departments and even small units kept up to date, and tannery chemists’ associations flourished. Unlike today, when we have seen Argentina slip away and very few tanneries have a research department.

Many of my books cover areas such as industrial or equestrian leathers, both of which no longer offer volume markets. However, the sectors adapted, found new outlets and ensured their products stayed relevant in the contemporary world. Some of our best tanners today have come from backgrounds of remarkable transformation as their technological and strategic skills were perfectly in balance to switch markets and technologies. From vegetable to chromium, fire hoses to aviation, the stories are legend. But mostly they are just that; somehow things have grown stagnant.

Was it really the industry’s intention to see all of our national research bodies close at the same time as tanneries eliminated research? Chemical companies helped fill the gap but, like the outdoor industry, brand names and patents obscure the real chemistry and many tannery chemists have evolved into technicians and are managing predefined processes. The chemical companies now have their own issues to deal with – legislative compliance and the massive costs of serving a global market. Even their research becomes much closer to market rather than long term.

So, did we fail to learn the lessons from the moment DuPont challenged leather with its poromeric PU 60 years ago? Business continued as normal and, when bad times came, we waited for the good times to reappear. The need to change now is creating destabilisation – too much, too fast. Is that the real truth about one of the planets most sustainable, versatile and beautiful materials? Hopefully not.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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