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The Indian leather industry survived the global recession and has continued to grow. It sells its finished product to some top brands and can be proud of what it has achieved. Back in the 1960s and 1970s European and American tanners became angry when India decided to move from exporting semi processed hides and skins to selling finished leather products.
I still have somewhere the semi-academic paper by Dr Robert Sykes, head of then industry owned British Leather Manufacturers Research Association, that showed that the Indian Exchequer would be better off if India continued to stick with semi-processed leather. I was working in El Salvador at the time and found it hard to accept.
But Indian Tanners, shoemakers and other leather using industries proved all the doubters wrong and the industry grew from strength to strength sending increasing quantities to Europe and to the USA. Major Brands such as ECCO, Clarks and Coach became big users of Indian capacity and garments from many top European fashion brands quietly come out of modern tanneries and production units hiding in towns and villages an hour or two outside of Chennai.
Yet the "Brand India" for leather items made in India has never made the impact on the world that could have been expected. Most notably garments made in India, apart from odd exceptions, cannot achieve the price categories regularly achieved by the Turkish industry for example. Always the financial turnover of the Indian leather industry takes a smaller share of the world trade in leather and leather goods than its volumes suggest it should.
Much of this revolves around nation Brands and the image of Made in India. Some of it is about the reality that is needed to support such an image. Tamil Nadu may have a zero discharge policy and some of the best environmental regulations for tanneries in the world but what is their value when we see loss of life in the CETP in Ranipet last week taking the headlines in the middle of the country’s most important International Leather Fair? And in Kanpur alongside some excellent facilities we have a grouping of small units where a serious attempt to confront the transfer of untreated tannery waste directly to the Ganges is only just being considered.
Brands are fickle
Much of India shows that leather making is not an ancient craft characterised by filth and squalor, and disregard for the welfare of the workforce and society. Many Indian tanneries exemplify that tanning is a modern science based industry with proper materials handling be they liquid or solid, and yet one that retains the artistry of old that makes leather such a superb product.
But brands these days are fickle, and largely controlled by consumers who talk to each other on social media. Instances where members of our industry choose to blatantly ignore the rules laid down and best practises do harm to individuals, families, to society and to everyone else working in the sector. And they certainly damage the Nation Brand of India.
Every anti leather person and journalist in the world knows that a flight to India or Bangladesh will get the stories and pictures that will quickly make the headlines. We cannot avoid this by hiding from it. Brands survive when they confront these matters and put them right.
I am big fan of the “Make in India” programme and seeing off the likes of PETA with the help of Leather Naturally! is quite achievable. Yet if a target of $27 billion or more turnover in five years is to be achieved the Brand India for leather needs to get itself in order fast. Let us see a proper plan and be given the details as it is implemented. It impacts us all; we are ready to help.
Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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