But, whisper it quietly, there is a palpable, if very cautious sense of optimism as we are looking ahead into 2020. Over the past few weeks ILM has spoken to many voices from a cross section of leather industry players, from tanners and traders, to associations, academia, chemical suppliers and machinery companies. While the majority agree that the last 12 months have been among the most brutal in terms of leather’s public perception and reputation, the effects of a rise in veganism and anti-meat and anti-leather sentiments, rock bottom raw materials prices, competition from alternative materials and generally a low demand for leather products, there is also an overriding sense that market conditions are showing some signs of improvement, and that perhaps, the tide is – very slowly – turning. 

Certainly, looking at the status quo from a raw materials perspective, my colleagues at theSauerReport are recording more positive signs coming out of China, improved export sales volumes from the U.S. (despite the ongoing trade war between the two countries) and similar feedback coming from Australia and much of Europe, with the upholstery sector and automotive leather in particular having seen a slight recovery in demand. This has given traders just enough leeway to nudge their asking prices up a notch for the first time in a long period of historic lows. 

Looking ahead

It will be interesting to see how the market develops over the coming months, and of course nobody has a crystal ball. However, one thing is obvious: the industry is waking up from its passive state and beginning to take control of its reputation and fortunes with increasing resolve. Industry organisations such as Leather UK and others have been instrumental this year in fighting back against fake news and misinformation about the industry in the media, while Leather Naturally and particularly its Metcha campaign, have also achieved some impressive results in a relatively short time. Of course, as an industry we need to keep up the momentum to really break down prejudices and educate consumers, especially the much cited Millennials and Gen-z’s to whom leather as a material seems most alien. But I for one feel consumers are beginning to wise up to the fact that the ‘vegan’ alternatives are most often really fossil fuel derived plastics and far worse for the environment than a natural, sustainable material such as leather. 

Speaking of sustainability – as a relative newcomer to the leather trade, having joined from the fashion retail sector, I have been genuinely impressed with the effort and commitment of the industry to embrace this rather complex challenge. The advancements with regards to circular production models, reduced waste, chemical and water pollution, traceability and animal welfare standards and generally a big shift towards a significant reduction of the environmental footprint across the whole leather value and supply chain have been considerable and commendable. As far as I can see, there is still a lot of potential and many opportunities ahead. 

Yes, in 2019 the industry undeniably has taken a beating – but it sure hasn’t been beaten. 

Isabella Griffiths, Editor, International Leather Maker