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They say that you never stop learning, and judging from a series of meetings I had last week it is very true. I have been fortunate to have visited tanneries far and wide around the world, of all types from quite primitive to very modern, over many years. What I sometimes fail to remind myself is that in recent years I have only been visiting some of the most modern and well managed plants. It is easy to come away with a view that the industry is uniformly excellent.
Listening to young tanners from all round the world and others travelling in the chemical and machinery businesses highlights more than simple differences in the size and the modernity of the plants.
Falling into pits as a rite of passage is not a humorous tradition
Leather making is a traditional business, and that is one of its strengths. It is also a major weakness. Falling into tanning pits as a rite of passage or leaving a factory untidy is not a humorous tradition, but a sign of incompetence. It is fine to be proud of our tradition, one boss of mine once told me, but we must not be bound by it. Today, whatever types of leather we make, leather has become an engineered product and needs to be tanned and produced with care in a way that is properly recorded and capable of being replicated. From the oldest bridle leather to the most modern fire-resistant upholstery for high speed railways, leather is defined by specifications that define its suitability and environmental impact.
Around the world we put a lot of effort into training our leather chemists and technicians, but our machinery mechanics rarely get elevated in the same way to senior positions. In the one tannery I know, where the senior director for some decades has been from engineering, it shines through that this will have a huge impact on processing and on quality. We do not say “engineered product” for nothing; leather is a mix of chemistry and architecture. How the fibres are disposed and interact is as much, if not more, a consequence of the physical processes as it is of the chemical ones.
The engineer only comes to a machine when it breaks down
Why is it, then, that around so much of the world the engineer only comes to a machine when it breaks down? What has happened to planned maintenance and the thought process of what machines should be used, and in what way, to achieve a given outcome for each leather?
In many tanneries, in particular the large recently built or modernised ones, we can observe a first rate set up, but the world makes 23 billion square feet of leather every year and for the reputation of leather and its brand image to be strong we need far more of that 23 billion square feet to be made properly and responsibly. We obviously cannot afford tanners who evade responsibility for waste management or proper treatment of the workforce, but now we have to think much wider as well into those who are so steeped in love of the past that they are clinging to old attitudes about manufacture in the false belief that this is maintaining tradition in some way.
We need to move the leather industry on to a new level. We should be able to build on global diversity to gives us the creativity to find the great leap forward that the leather industry needs. If we are fighting the misrepresentation of leather, in particular by those promoting inferior alternates such as plastics, we need to be able to tell a positive story of responsible processing and continual technical advancement.
Dr Mike Redwood
February 13, 2018
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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