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Modern geopolitics has become a major influence on the leather industry in a way that is unusual outside of war, albeit, it was the slower application of geopolitical trends that pushed leather making out of the more advanced economies and into the emerging markets.
This major relocation is now termed ‘deindustrialisation’, and society has tried to help the unemployed, left-behind workers via further education and mobility support that more often than not has been unsuccessful. In many ways political changes, and hence modern geopolitics, have proven that point.
One thing that has become clear is that people like their work and traditional manufacture offered “jobs with pride”. Those who have a manufacturing background often cannot find the same personal satisfaction in many of the new service oriented businesses now becoming dominant. What is more, as Industry 4.0 continues to mix robotics and data, a lot of jobs and the individual skills involved in production are being lost.
In the leather industry we lament that the difficulty of handling leather with the irregular shapes and varying surface qualities that come from a natural material makes it hard to adapt to modern Industry 4.0 approaches. While this has made it easier for knits and plastics to replace leather in footwear, there is a societal upside.
Leather manufacture relies on craftsmanship
Leather manufacture, from traditional specialist vegetable tanneries through to the most advanced automotive leather plant, cannot escape the need for a high level of craftsmanship. However, leather is processed from the design of a new product through to and including its bulk manufacture, the human touch is required, and with it a series of subjective judgments of leather experiential aspects like “break”, “temper”, “handle” along with colour and many other aspects of touch and feel. Leather is certainly an engineered product today, meeting precise physical and chemical targets, but it remains a natural one.
Without question, the current and the future leather industry, including the industries using leather, as well as those maintaining and repairing leather items, should always offer good employment that fits into the category of “jobs with pride”. Despite the geographic movement of the last fifty years, leather making still exists with significant plants in most countries.
Additionally, the huge global transition the industry has made towards ensuring that leather leads the sustainability movement with its approach to reducing inputs of every sort as well as waste; and making best use of any waste that does arise, means that tanning has become an even better “community citizen’.
In the US recently 180 top companies in the Business Roundtable announced that a shift was required from only serving shareholders to one taking account of all stakeholders. Generally speaking, we can say that tanners are, and have been, good employers and can help the Business Roundtable achieve its goals on a worldwide basis.
Leather and the leather industry add humanity to the world
As the world evolves to a more digital, impersonal state, the leather industry is perfectly placed to match the benefits offered to society by its product, leather. The leather industry can add humanity to the world through its commitment to its communities and pride in the work it creates.
September 18, 2019
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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