Is there a need for a “leather” only trade fair?

First published in the March/April 2019 edition of ILM
Published:  11 April, 2019
Martin Ricker

Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing. Where experiences and events are viewed with only the best parts retained in the memory. Industry veterans talk about the former Semaine du Cuir fair in Paris with such affection that those of us that never attended often wonder what it was really like. Was it a true leather fair where traders, tanners, chemical and machinery suppliers from around the world were all under one roof for the leather industry’s big annual showpiece? Where the champagne flowed, and everyone made a good living.

Today, the trade fair landscape is very different, and the major shows in this industry tend to be more regional and have become more “materials” fairs rather than leather-specific. From a visitor’s perspective, being able to source a range of materials and components under one-roof is a sensible and efficient use of time. It does make sense for leather as a component material to be where the designers and buyers are.

At the 34th IILF in Chennai in early February, I heard a few dissenting industry voices questioning the current format of many of the leading trade shows in our industry and whether the global leather sector was doing enough to protect itself. Many people feel that most exhibitions now allow competing materials, such as synthetics and textiles, a free ride to exhibit alongside genuine leather makers and compete for the same buyers in what traditionally were leather fairs. The makers of these plastic substrates openly market misleading terminology such as ‘faux’, ‘pu’ and ‘synthetic leather’, and undercut genuine leather makers on price. As recent industry trends show, especially for footwear, most of the major brands and retailers will buy on price as their first objective and other considerations, such as sustainability and longevity in use, in reality, come further down the pecking order. The leather industry has allowed its competition into its own backyard and is now being squeezed out, slowly losing its market share. Meanwhile, most of the traditional leather-orientated fairs have reinvented themselves as ‘materials’ exhibitions.

For a commercial fair organiser this makes total sense as their business model is to fill exhibition space, and those that pay the most will get the best stand positions if they book well in advance. It is not really their concern if the company sells leather or plastic so as long as they are a legitimate business and pay up.
Having said that, all fair organisers do have a responsibility not to allow the mislabelling of materials to be marketed at any show. Sadly, this is not the case and as the picture shows company’s can use the terms such as ‘synthetic leather’ openly and legally at most shows where real leather is also exhibited. All the major industry events throughout the world are currently guilty of allowing this.

Perhaps, what is most surprising of all, is that many of the very same industry trade fairs are owned or part-owned by associations and organisations that are established to represent the leather industry in their respective countries. Why aren’t the members of these associations raising this issue and complaining? Why do tanners allow their competitors a platform to compete with them in their own fairs by using terms such as synthetic, faux, pu leather etc? It’s the short-term financial gain of exhibition space against the long-term pain of material substitution of leather by other materials.

The leather industry should not be afraid of competition, and competition often means that companies have to raise their game, which is no bad thing. But the fact is that competing materials are being given a free ride and at the very least they should be exhibiting in separate halls to exhibitors to tanners (which some fairs do already) and the organisers that do represent the interests of the leather industry should have stricter policies when it comes to companies exhibiting misleading marketing and labelling such as ‘faux leather’ in historically pro-leather trade events. As I’ve said before, these companies use the consumers’ positive perceptions about genuine leather to align with it, while at the same time trash it in their marketing. The industry representative bodies should not allow this to happen.

So, to come back to the question posed in the title; in my opinion, we do not need, nor is there an appetite for, a solely ‘leather supply chain’ only fair. The ones that already exist do a perfectly fine job. They just need to improve their housekeeping and better support their members greater interests in these challenging market conditions.

Khaitan Synthetic Leather exhibiting at the 2019 edition of the India International Leather Fair in Chennai.

Martin Ricker, Content Director

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