Mike Redwood

Columnist

International Leather Maker


In the mid-1980s, I travelled to western China’s Gansu Province looking for hairsheep skins. China was not yet very open to foreigners and a minder was sent from Beijing to monitor our activities. Our local guide had been denied school by the Mao era, so learned English listening to the BBC World Service. We soon discovered that the experts in sheepskins lay in the Muslim communities found in villages in the hills and were met with a wonderful welcome and purchased our skins among these groups.

Two weeks ago, I heard the name Rahile Dawut and discovered she is a world renowned 57-year-old anthropologist who studied these Muslim areas. Her international fame in scholarly circles comes from her academic studies of Uyghur life and hopes to preserve some of the cultural diversity in the wider Xinjiang region. In 2017, she disappeared and, in 2023, the Dui Hua Foundation reported that she had been sentenced to life in prison for endangering national security.

During my trip, the reverse side of the National Geographic map I had with me showed ethnic minorities in China and, although the scale was unhelpful, the places we found our best tanneries (some truly old school) were marked with purple dots for Muslim. Today, I could not buy those skins, even if they are still available, due to international human rights concerns. Generally speaking, the leather trade has always managed to find ways to continue trading during periods of difficult politics. I was working with an Argentinian tanner during the Falklands War in the early 1980s and we were long-standing friends. We held our council on the conflict but continued working, and I am pleased that I do not think I have lost touch with any of my Argentine friends over the years.

Geopolitics and leather

Current geopolitics feel different. There is an element of everyone travelling on the same “moral railway line” on an issue but choosing to get off at different stations. I will fight for climate change, but not glue myself to doorways or damage property, nor disrupt people going about their daily business. To me such things are wrong – a station too far. But should we buy Chinese made automobiles? Or other products which carry similar technologies that have led China to ban Tesla vehicles from a growing number of government affiliates, local authority agencies, highway operators and even cultural and exhibition centres, on top of a longer standing ban from military bases?

In the bigger picture, North America has worked hard since the Financial Crisis to damage the image of a dollar led rules-based system. Initially, China looked as though it would play by the rules of the liberal international order but was soon duplicitous and, now, President Xi clearly wants to see a multipolar world and write new rules.

The Chinese leadership’s dislike of the Western-centric world order is matched only by Putin in Russia, who has chosen to use an anti-Western policy to stay in power for life. It is also gaining considerable support from the Global South, where America’s increasing nationalist self-interest has created uncertainty. The Belt and Road Initiative, although poorly managed, has generally helped China build support, as has Russia’s use of deniable forces to keep African regimes in power.

Amid all this, Russia has traditionally been a big client for the Turkish leather industry and some Indian companies are now selling leather to Russia while pretending not to. China is of course hugely important to every aspect of the global leather supply chain, from buying U.S. and Brazilian hides to making the majority of almost every finished leather product. Meanwhile, the fast-rising population in Africa should see big local growth in both leather production and consumer purchasing as the century develops.

President Xi’s visit to Europe last week did not reassure. There was no real search for compromise in either Europe’s acceptance of imports from China or on China’s support for Ukraine, although France got a deal on cognac.

Choices to be made

In my view, this all spells turmoil for the world of leather and will be decided as each company chooses where it will get off on the moral railway line. For many, the brand Patagonia forms the benchmark to follow. After two decades and excellent relationships built up with its Chinese suppliers of organic cotton, in 2020 the company announced it would be actively exiting the Xinjiang region. It had mapped the source of products to the farm level as part of this and instructed all its suppliers that both fibre and manufacturing in Xinjiang was prohibited.

The current global situation stretches far beyond this region but is no less complex. Leather has always been an international business and has never been totally localised. It will struggle with a big curtailment. We must be open and clear as we decide at which station of the moral railway line we will alight.

The views of the Redwood Comment are those of the author and not necessarily those of the publisher.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

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