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Professor Ian Goldin will have long forgotten about leather. It does not get a mention in his most recent book "Age of Discovery". Yet, long before he was personally head hunted by Nelson Mandela as an advisor and as CEO of the Development Bank of South Africa, long before he became Vice President of the World Bank, and even longer before his appointment as Professor of Globalisation and Development at Oxford University, he worked for a business called Landell Mills and spent time looking at the global leather industry.
What he certainly picked up from leather is not just that it is a globally integrated business but that it has essentially been so from the beginning of the history of commerce. Indeed, some of the first trading done in the land between the Tigres and the Euphrates 5,000 years ago involved using hides and skins to build coracles in order to bring more skins down the mountains to sell.
In his latest book, written along with Chris Kutarna, a fellow from the Oxford Martin School where Professor Goldin is just retiring after a ten-year stint as founding Director, they argue that the current disenchantment with globalisation is not new.
In an acclaimed rigorous re-examination of the Renaissance and comparison with events today, the book argues that the “first" Renaissance created all the upset and disruption that we are seeing now but that, 500 years on, we look back on an undoubted golden age. To turn the events we have been watching in recent years into a "new" Renaissance, a modern golden age, we need to understand the past so we can properly interpret what is going on around us.
Those of us who believe leather to be a truly sustainable material have seen the role it has played in the last century, and more in pulling people out of poverty. Raw material exists in almost every country and the manufacture of articles using leather employs huge numbers of people all of whom are paying taxes while learning useful skills. Certainly, automation and mechanisation has, and will in the future, eliminate jobs in leather but, in most areas we are dealing with, there are skills in craftsmanship that will not be wholly replaced, and it is plastics and textiles which are more suited to robotics.
Love of craft in Florence was key
As the book concludes, the recommendations feel a little simplistic for the profound discussion that has been introduced, except when it starts to discuss that great leather city: Florence. Love of craft in Florence was, it is argued, key to the first Renaissance, to attracting artists and the ability to build group tacit knowledge out of information.
Such group tacit knowledge is increasingly important in the leather industry although it is not always apparent that this is understood. Anyone can have copy a good formula, but we know very well it will not always make great leather. Some of the more integrated structures of leather businesses, especially those who are cutting their own leather, or using retailing interactions to better understand consumers and their wishes, are building strong foundations of tacit knowledge. The authors talk about being willing to take risks, to accommodate newcomers and build new crossroads. The new networks and closely integrated structures as our industry rethinks supply networks is doing just that.
Leather is a global business and is on the move: to new places as well as back to the old. Both have need of leather jobs, of reducing inequality and building new skills. We are an ancient industry that has increased relevance in the modern world. Playing our part in the New Renaissance is not an option, it is a necessity.
5th October 2016
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