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Was the leather industry disrupted when chrome tanning began to spread in the early twentieth century? Was it disrupted when the footwear, garment and glove business started to grow in Korea and Taiwan in the 1960s, or in China in the 1990s? Was it a disruption when sole leather was replaced by rubber and plastic, or the sneaker moved beyond being a tennis shoe into everyday wear? Or how about when we stopped riding horses and started going in buses and automobiles.
Disruption is one of those loosely used words denoting change, mostly major and irreversible change. In those terms all the events mentioned above, plus a few more could fall under the “disrupt” banner, and all required every tanner, large or small, to look up and assess the implications. The Cambridge Dictionary defines disrupt in business terms as “to change the traditional way that an industry operates, especially in a new and effective way” and cites Dell selling computers via the Internet instead of through traditional stores as an example.
Most of us actually prefer the second definition that Cambridge use, where to disrupt is more than a big change but “to prevent something, especially a system, process, or event, from continuing as usual or as expected.” Thus, a storm disrupts a rail transport system, and it is the potential damage being done to the whole system that is the primary concern.
If you think in terms of systems, the leather industry sits in a great many, and for decades, centuries and in some cases millennia leather has actually been quite pivotal to all sorts of systems. Sometimes, as with transport or military equipment, leather has actually found itself classed as a strategic material. With alternate materials such as technical textiles and plastics coming on the scene, such a strategic role for leather has diminished, although worry about impact of plastics on the planet should start to reverse that. Good marketing will be needed as consumer logic does not appear to be a strong feature right now.
While leather continues to do well in the luxury sector, in most other systems – footwear, fashion, automobiles – uncertainty reigns, and hence the word “disruption” is being used by many of our colleagues as they foresee difficult, irreversible changes coming. The problem the industry has now with unused capacity and hides and skins being thrown away are beyond a cyclical downturn.
What is curious is that the influences on the different leather “systems” are mostly quite different. New technologies and urbanisation in the automotive sector are separate from rising labour, and other costs, in China pushing the footwear industry in different directions. Some clear-headed thinking is the one common feature that is needed, and of a medium to long term strategic nature. All these situations are more than plastic passing itself off as leather, bad as that is, but more structural.
In each case they have the potential to truly disrupt what we have come to know as the leather industry. They need our attention.
Dr Mike Redwood
May 1, 2019
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