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An interesting question was asked at the careers day at the Leather Centre (ICLT) at the University of Northampton last week. Indeed the questioner was a lecturer who knows the business well, so it was more of a statement than a question. "How do you see the growing demand for protein competing for hides and skins?"
It is a significant question. We know that hides and skins are edible, but just lack a few amino acids for a proper diet. The Nigerians eat too many of them and around the world people regularly demand the skin is left on the pig for the table. The demand for gelatine is steadily growing with the industry complaining of difficulty in obtaining raw material, the sausage skin business seems to be on a steady growth trail and alternate usages of collagen in medical and cosmetic end uses keep developing. While we note that the in the west the hide is less than ten per cent of the value of the hide, sometimes as low as three per cent that does not mean it is unwanted. If all tanners closed tomorrow the hides would certainly create a problem, but it would not take long for them to be snatched up elsewhere. Hides and skins may not be the reason that farmers keep cattle and sheep but they are very valuable materials, which can be used in many different ways.
Yet that ten per cent figure slips away when you move out into the emerging world where for subsistence and nomadic farmers the value of the hides and skins is vital to their survival. This is a sector of the global population feeding their animals on long-term grassland that we deeply want to support. We cannot underestimate the importance of hides and skins here.
Raw material costs
As the cost of raw material has risen, and the clamour about the role of "luxury" intensifies other types of skins come into the equation. They may only constitute less than 2% of the volume of leather made worldwide but their importance is far beyond that. Think of ostrich, which is returning to importance among consumers. The skill of the ostrich farmer is to maximise the value of three products - feathers, meat, and leather - and the financial strengths of each these can vary enormously over time. Lately it is said that one skin of just over 1 sq.m. will cover the entire cost of the production of the bird. With bird flu in South Africa these last few years stopping meat exports to the EU, the main market, the role of the skin has been a vital one. While many tanners like to deny reptiles as being part of the leather industry a walk round any leather show, and most particularly the recent excellent Cuir A Paris goes to demonstrates their vital important as a tool in the armoury of the luxury goods trade. What is more there appears to be good evidence that well managed farming of certain species of crocodile plays a very important role in their preservation. Yet their skins are not a waste product or a by-product by any definition.
One could go on and consider Australian kangaroo, New Zealand possum and many other hide and skin types that are wholly legitimate as material out of which to make leather. But the key point is that arguments that try to diminish the value of our raw material look doomed to fail. Hides and skins are valuable as a raw material for leather and for many other uses: their value is only likely to go up.
A little while ago a major shoe maker was asked their opinion of hides being a waste material or unwanted by-product of meat processing. The response was sharp. "We view ourselves as a leather business. Leather is a costly and valuable material. Viewing our tanners as refuse disposal people is inconceivable".
Indeed. Right now there is new imperative related to traceability and quality. Instead of distancing ourselves from the origins of our raw material we need to get more involved. On one hand this helps with traceability, with our customers being able to know where exactly the leather in their products come from. Some of the top German tanners are the pioneers in this as far as leather is concerned and it is clear that consumers do like it. But equally important is to get involved to help convince farms around the world to improve husbandry, just as we did in Europe 50 years ago to eradicate warble fly. We are taught that a healthy animal gives both a better hide and better meat. Tanners need to be truly informed and interested parties in the supply chain, making sure that their raw material is the best it can be.
Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood