Leather goods wins over technology in a polycrisis year

Redwood Comment
Published:  20 December, 2022
Credit: Zerbor/Shutterstock.com

Mike Redwood ends the year with a word of caution and a call for the leather industry to stick together against the problems of 2022 and those ahead.

When I did my MBA at the University of Bath in the UK, we were offered a short course on speed reading and mind mapping. I then began using a mind maps notebook to look at global trends, learning how they interrelate and trying to understand the ways issues might feed down to the leather industry network. As we come to the end of 2022, it looks like the time to use them again.

Quite a few tanners will be saying good riddance to 2022 and its many problems, yet no one should expect 2023 to turn out any less extraordinary. Terms like permacrisis (Collins Dictionary word of the Year) and polycrisis are being grabbed at by commenters to help explain the situation and whether individual situations, such as the property sector in China, should be viewed in global or only local terms becomes controversial.

Yet, when doing mind maps routinely many years ago, it was apparent that in a global world there were very few areas where the implications did not seep out and affect the wider world. We know there will always be unexpected consequences – it is whether they will be damaging or not we need to work out.

Shortly after the financial crisis of 2007-2008, I found myself talking at a seminar at the IILF in Chennai and we spent 45 minutes considering the outlook for the Indian trade as a result of its impact on customers in different parts of the world, on raw material supplies and prices and the resulting requirements for the management of cash and re-examination of longer-term aspects of export orientation.

It merely evidenced that all such events have knock-on consequences elsewhere; over 200 years ago, UK tanners ran out of oak bark for tanning because so many oak trees were cut down to build ships to fight Napoleon. The tanners had high-level meetings with the Prime Minister, to little effect, so went on a successful international search for alternates.

So, in 2022, we have seen China still closed by Covid, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggering a fuel, fertiliser and grain crisis, and turning what was to be “transitory” inflation into something more permanent for many countries. Climate change discussions made 1.5°C a very tough target to stick to while threats to biodiversity accelerate. It is a lot to cope with.

China’s abrupt reversal of Covid regulations, Omicron notwithstanding, should give some impetus to both local and global growth in 2023. But its positions on Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang mean that the U.S.-China decoupling and the redesigning of supply chains will both continue.

So will the global realignment of nations around Russia, China and the West continue to evolve, with unpredictable implications for leather industry growth areas, in particular in the Global South. One relentless element that does seem to be growing everywhere is corruption and, in most countries, this is accompanied by poor enforcement of laws and regulations. Far worse than the historic slipping of cash to technicians and overinflated invoices we have become used to. This is of a different scale.

Yet, as we look forward to 2023, the leather industry must be positive. We have a material that the world needs and properly resourced, made and used in well-designed articles can aid an improvement in biodiversity, holding off climate change and reduce the depletion of planetary resources. Its beauty, longevity and biophilic nature improve human wellbeing.

The key approach is collaboration

We know leather has never existed in a vacuum, throughout history it has been an essential item in transport, wars, industry, sport, fashion, luxury and all aspects of societal advancement. While, until recently, our institutions got trapped in silos, we now are cooperating well and, for 2023, the word we need to keep top of mind among all the many items of the ongoing polycrisis is “collaboration”.

The biggest issue of all we are facing will require us to reconsider all our processing methods, the complete lifecycle from grassland to the eventual end of life, with a much deeper understanding of circularity. We must accept that everything we are doing needs critical reexamination. Chasing efficiency to save pennies is no good if people or the planet suffer. Inertia cannot be allowed to hinder progress by refusing small price rises because “consumers will not pay extra for the environment”. It is a bogus argument.

And if you want to read one good item over the upcoming holidays, or better still watch in it full on YouTube, then look up Margaret Thatcher’s November 1989 speech on Climate Change to the United Nations. A scientifically-trained world leader for the first time detailing the issues of climate change and biodiversity loss with amazing precision; seeking collaboration for urgent action to save plants and animals, humans and life itself. There is no complacency here and, largely because it was over 30 years ago, no jargon – so an easy listen.

As we end the year, let us note that a man who peddles leather goods with pride, Bernard Arnault, the Chairman and CEO of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, has just been named in the Bloomberg Billionaires Index as the wealthiest person in the world. While Arnault has managed to keep his many brands growing and profitable, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, Tesla and Twitter, has seen his wealth decline, not least caused by a largely self-inflicted decline by half in the value of Tesla.

We have often said that technology needs leather to humanise a world that is hard to understand. That is why we are buying more leather furniture for our homes, and leather covers for our phones and tablets. It is why we prefer to sit on leather in transportation, and not the plastic that Mr Musk has decided to offer in his cars. Think of Arnault and Musk when you are tempted to undersell your leather or let it become a commodity. In 2023, leather must do its duty.

Season’s greetings to all those who are kind enough to read these columns.

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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