The leather industry could lead the way in manufacturing

Redwood comment
Published:  28 July, 2021
Credit: Ivars Krutain

This is the headline from the top of the editorial page of the Financial Times (FT) on July 23. It had the word “British” added, and yes it was 2021 and not 1821. The headline came from the FT but the letter it headlined I had written in response to an article about hopes for future employment in manufacturing and services.

The article that I was referring to was actually quite correct. I always read Sarah O’Connor’s FT articles and have appreciated her perceptive comments on many FT Webinars over the past year. She was the first to highlight the problem of modern day slave labour in the UK city of Leicester – some years ago – so it was no surprise when Boohoo got itself into trouble there recently; and she has been clear on the underlying problems that still reside in the many of the world’s major abattoirs and meat packing companies. 

In this instance she was reminding those hell-bent on reversing “deindustrialisation” that most of the top manufacturing nations have in fact maintained their output but that jobs have been lost to structural and technical developments. The huge numbers employed in steel, in coal mining and the like are gone and will never return. The automobile industry has remained employing large numbers, but modern robots and AI mean not the tens, even hundreds of thousands we used to have. 

For me the car industry offers a good example of the modern situation. Last week I drove past the door of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. I have never been inside but I do know they have a large number of people handcrafting the leather interiors. The skills of assessing, cutting, stretching and stitching the leather do not require a university STEM degree but they do require craft and judgment. This is satisfying work, that creates pride. In the rush to services employment such good careers should not be overlooked. 

French example
The main comparison I used in my letter was France. Here with the predominance of a globally dominant luxury industry modest productions of leather are transformed into huge wealth and very significant employment in leather goods, shoes, gloves and other items. Much of the employment is distributed around medium sized communities where jobs are needed. It is notable that some luxury goods companies have bought up tanneries, glove and footwear plants not so much to secure supplies as to ensure no loss of the skills upon which their whole essence depends. Modern society too often mistakenly classes these skills as a “smokestack” and outdated. 

While tanning itself is quite capital intensive in terms of plant and machinery, leather finishing and the making of all leather products sees the labour content increasing quite dramatically, even with developments like injection moulding in footwear. This has meant that many countries have used leather as a route to develop their economies. South Korea and Taiwan are good examples from the 1960s and 70s, but later the Indian subcontinent countries and even to some degree China used it to move people off the land and into export oriented light industry with great success.

Now it is the turn for Africa, where the mix of the new global order, reshoring and technological advancement means that they may never see many of the labour consuming jobs other countries used to create their middle classes. Leather remains an outstanding opportunity to create employment and income. In the developing world it also offers added value to domestic and imported raw material, with greater ease of collecting income tax, and less opportunity for the corruption that has dogged exports of untreated goods like diamonds and oil.  

So, while a headline that the “Leather Industry could lead the way in Manufacturing” might seem a little arrogant in the rocket science era of Bezos and Musk, those with their feet on the ground will identify the validity in looking for other types of work that many countries and people desire. Not everyone wants to work in hospitality, in a warehouse or at a desk behind a screen.  

While the French industry creates items of immense beauty and quality, which last a very long time, around the world workers also use leather to create items that last and can be repaired. They might not come near luxury pricing, but they are the antithesis of disposable goods. 

And according to Walter Stahel, the original thinker behind the circular economy, a wide commitment to repair in a country can employ 4% of the workforce in jobs that robots will never replace. 

An honest story needs to be told 
With hides and skins produced from the livestock industries around the world leather is in fact the perfect natural and renewable material for us to shout out about leather as an example of how some low-key industries can play a lead role in pulling the world to a better place out of the pandemic. It is time to shout out beyond our normal boundaries. We have suffered enough: a good, honest story needs to get told. 

Mike Redwood

July 13, 2021

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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