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When thinking about raw material these days, we tend to focus on two issues – animal welfare and traceability. These have arisen to create auditable routes which fit into a “tick-box” approach and certainly have their relevance.
My problem is the tick-box approach has been used by brands to reduce costs via de-skilling. However good the audit, to my mind this relentless activity to save money by reducing the qualifications and knowledge of those responsible for buying leather is one of the worst possible directions our industry can take.
There is a third element which I think needs to be included here which is hide and skin quality. If the tanneries and the brands have well trained and properly experienced staff in place, a well monitored, traceable set up which includes the best animal welfare should lead to better quality hides and skins. Yet, over the last three decades almost everywhere you travel you hear the same message of relentlessly deteriorating raw material quality. It does not seem to matter whether you are in Africa, or in India or the U.S., everyone is complaining.
The help offered by chemical companies involves more and heavier finishes, making the leather difficult for the consumer to tell from plastic. The leather loses its USP in the consumers’ eyes even, although we know it will last longer and is of a more sustainable origin. We see the damage in the continued intrusion of plastic substitutes replacing these types of leather.
Huge financial gains from raw-skin improvement
I know that our institutions work hard on many of these aspects, so I am wary of making the careless disparaging remarks I have sometimes thoughtlessly used in the past, but I do endlessly find my thoughts returning to my time on the tannery floor in the 70s and 80s when Guy Reaks from the ICT was pounding away about the huge financial gains to country and industry available from avoiding obvious issues in the quality of the hides and skins.
Some of the problems come from the slaughterhouse, some from the quality of the hide preservation - or its absence - and a lot from husbandry. Nearly all the husbandry issues such as failure to dust or dip animals to avoid insect damage would be more than self-financing in terms of the extra meat and milk gained from healthier livestock, but history, custom or the pressures of everyday life has made it difficult to get the farmers started. Some of the traceability guidelines – established to fit neatly with an auditing process – appear to actively discriminate against traditional small rural farmers in favour of more factory type set ups where volume trumps quality.
Lower grade material has always been the biggest issue in the leather industry. It was my first question to Mr Andres Colomer when I was privileged to meet him for the first time back in the 1970s. He said it was only a matter of price. I understood his point, but we see today he was wrong. In many sectors these low-grade skins are unsaleable and new routes for their disposal will have to be established, possibly threatening the whole future of leather as a material.
In some places we have seen quality switch around from 70% good and 30% poor to only 30% good and 70% poor in less than thirty years with no sign of the trend stopping. We need to halt and reverse this if leather is to retain its place in society.
January 15, 2020
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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