Moving leather forward

Redwood Comment
Published:  03 July, 2019
Dr Mike Redwood

The fact that hides and skins are not reaching the tannery but are being discarded to landfill is a failure in the leather industry. All through the 20th century we said that the volume of leather is totally dependent upon the size of the kill created for meat and dairy purposes as no economics could ever permit keeping livestock for leather.  

Given that in 1900 the world population was only 1.6 billion compared with 6.1 billion in 2000, tanners had to spend much of the last half of the century trying to make sure every hide and skin found its way to the tannery, with regions like Nigeria, where people liked to eat the hides, heavily scrutinised. I also remember working with Jim Jackman at Booths on a de-skinning machine for pigskins so that at least a few square feet of raw skin could be available for the tannery when the carcass was scalded. Booths thought pigskins would be important in making up for a shortage of leather.

Lots of articles were written about the implications of per capita availability of leather declining and leather becoming more of a luxury. Even at that time – the late 1970s and early 1980s - the Rev. Bob Higham (a Leathersellers graduate and well known leather industry editor ) set up a project to look at alternate protein outlets for very low-grade hides so that tanneries would retain leadership in the decision tree, while focussing on profitable conversion. Various options were clearly available, yet it was impossible to find an acceptable working structure at that time.

One might put down 2004 as the decisive year in what has happened since. It was in 2004 that leather producers recognised that there was not a single sector in which leather was absolutely the required material. Certainly, there were many areas where leather was by far preferred, such as saddlery and some sports balls, and sub sectors still defined by leather, such as Goodyear welted footwear, but in every instance were there no leather, there were other things to use. The ability to substitute had greatly accelerated since the 1950s, the decade in which mass production of plastics had commenced.

Lost at sea, the discovery of microplastics
It was that same year that the seminal paper “Lost at Sea: Where Is All the Plastic?” was published in Science magazine. Richard Thompson and his co-authors had not understood the gap in the mass balance for plastics when production and waste numbers were examined. While large plastic debris was already an issue and the subject of regular expensive clean ups, it was this study in 2004 that identified that UV light and abrasion, amongst other things, was breaking plastic in sea water down to what was termed as microplastics, which were likely to be ingested by sea life. As even tinier particles were discovered, and the spread in depth and across the world entered every crevice of the marine environment, this fragmenting has become a major global issue threatening biodiversity and one David Attenborough talked about at the Glastonbury Festival this last weekend.

Our industry would have done well to reflect on the implications (and opportunities) of these two major moments, but while I remember some discussions, the leather industry, generally speaking, hurried on unperturbed. Three things were needed, and fifteen years on they have not changed; but the urgency and the effectiveness required has increased.

They can all be summed up in the one word “marketing”. A lot of people seem to think this merely relates to communications and advertising, and thank goodness that Leather Naturally’s long awaited campaign has now got funding and gets underway this month. It is absolutely vital, and hopefully the recent momentum in terms of support from tanneries, will accelerate. It needs to. Yet, any marketer knows that marketing is about much more, since societal marketing is about meeting the evolving needs of customers while doing good in the society in which we live. So marketing needs to be embedded in company thinking and encompass bigger areas such as innovation and long-term strategy. I do not think so many tanneries can look back on the noughties and produce documentation to prove that they looked systematically at either. I await to be sent historic copies of PESTEL diagrams with interest.

The “dynamic balance” of leather research has been lost
While the need for strategic action fifteen years ago is pretty clear, 70% of the strategic effort at least would have been directed into the innovation and communications streams. The industrial structure for innovation a hundred years ago mixed research institutes, in house tannery activities, and the rising chemical companies, but with the research institutes gone and the tanneries cut to the bone, this dynamic balance which handled fundamental and “close to market” research quite well, has gone. Shareholder demands on chemical companies has meant a significant shift of resources to compliance. Research is not dead as the recent excellent Dresden XXXV International IULTCS Congress has shown, but leather has stood still while alternates of all sorts sweep by. Leather has always had an ability to evolve with the times, but in the last 15 years the rise of enthusiasm for what I would define as “false” luxury instead of real consumer features and benefits has left leather floundering.

Some strategic thinking, a new approach to innovation and a major global communications push. We have one pillar built, but a lot to do.

Mike Redwood
July 3, 2019

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

Publication and Copyright of "Redwood Comment" remains with the publishers of International Leather Maker. The articles cannot be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the publisher.