I first realised this in the 1970s when the Boston Consultant Group were looking at our overall business – footwear from tannery to retail in Central America – and began asking details about the balance of raw material, chemical and labour costs. The results were startling. The obvious took further analysis to hit home and become clear.

In emerging markets such light industry employment is essential since, as well as employment for the less educated, unemployed or partly employed, it offers a secure way for governments to collect tax and escape total reliance on foreign aid. Export of raw materials – coffee, hides, oil and minerals – leaves too much money in too few hands and we know the trickle-down approach does not work. Swiss bank accounts fill up instead.

Since making leather is a mix of science and art, whether the leather worker is working in an advanced or emerging country, they gain great knowledge of the material and, after only a few years, management ask their opinions on leather quality at all stages.

The greatest knowledge is not always where it is assumed

The recognition of those at the bottom is often ignored. Reading the elderly Nobel Prizewinner Amrtya Sen’s recent memoir Home on the World he talks about his grandfather being attacked because he published ancient Indian subcontinent poems and songs in versions that gave preference to the living oral traditions of rural people, often from the poorest part of society.

Given that the original poets never wrote their texts down and they were handed forward orally over five centuries or more this seems logical, but even at the start of the 20th century there was a powerful tendency to “keep access… confined to the urban, educated classes, and to dismiss the possibility that rural poets could have… the sophistication to say things as smart as [his grandfather] claimed”.

This has resonance in the little-known artistic works of Yellapah of Vellore who came from the tanner’s caste in south India and was able to teach himself art in what we might call the Tanjore School tradition. This was a time when the British Army had a base in Vellore and soldiers’ and traders’ families wanted to find a way to send pictures home or retain as albums. He painted in the early decades of the 1800s and we have an amazing self portrait of him. According to William Dalrymple, the historian, during the 1830s and 40s he “seemed literally to be knocking on people’s doors and offering to paint pictures of their horses, dogs and servants”.

During the pandemic, some service company CEOs took to calling their employees directly via Zoom to see if they were OK. One of the great revelations of this was their surprise that so much skill was held within their organisations that had never been able, or allowed, to come to the surface. These were unheard voices.

The pandemic has emphasised how so much of the burden of maintaining the foundations of society depends upon largely ignored groups who offer far more to society than loyalty and dedication if they are listened to and supported.

One aspect of a great tannery will be how we use all our staff

The talk of a new era of ESG in business and moving from a shareholder first to a more caring capitalism with purpose is being shown to be littered with greenwash and virtue signalling. The leather industry has avoided this and our bigger fear in family-owned businesses is allowing paternalism to become only superficial listening of voices, rather than seriously looking for knowledge and skills worthy of further training in every part the company.

While we must continue to be vigilant to eradicate labour abuse and modern-day slavery in every party of our industry and supply networks one aspect of a great tannery will be how we use our staff – young and old, male and female, factory floor and board room. 

Mike Redwood

August 24, 2021


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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