Single use plastics become an unsung hero

Redwood Comment
Published:  16 April, 2020
Dr Mike Redwood

We need to be careful about the balance of our antagonism to the marketing of competitive materials. 

A few years ago I was asked to write a book on gloves and in it I noted that the modern glove market was growing far larger than anything we knew in the past. This was because of the huge number of gloves worn in the medical and industrial sectors, driven by concerns over health and society. The real push began as a result of AIDS towards the end of last century. Tens of billions such gloves are produced annually, and the big problem is that they are almost totally single use plastic gloves. For some years such gloves have been noted as one of the top ten most identifiable items to be found in plastic waste in the sea and on remote beaches.

Right now our health workers and millions of other staff around the world are depending on these throwaway items for protection as they work, and many who would never have thought to wear them have started to do so. It will be a long time before consumers put fuel in their cars without making use of the free disposable gloves.

So to pour contempt and vitriol on plastic for the sake of it would certainly be wrong, although it is correct for us to push for greater long term environmental consideration in their materials and disposal, almost certainly involving incineration at high temperatures. It very much emphasises the importance of leather marketing to focus on the positives and to be based entirely on scientific fact, avoiding indignation or greenwash.

But Leather can come to the rescue
The truth about leather is quite a good enough story to not need embellishment, and we can happily build a million stories of romance, protection, performance and beauty around a material that has been at the core of society since its start.

With countries starting to observe what looks like the peak in terms of new infections and deaths, we are seeing the slow and careful reopening of the leather sector. Hopefully this can be managed without the creation of a second set of peaks and will return into a steady return to the new normal.

It does appear clear that consumer behaviour will change, and caution will be characteristic of everyday life. Transport is expecting local travel to pick up well before international does, and the return to work will involve more considerations for the concept of social distancing. Until there is an effective vaccine, a sizeable sector of economic activity will be missing, and we will need to assess how that will impact our industry.

A block of sales have already been lost and will not be recovered. Unemployment jumps in almost every country, plus the arrival of economic recession in much of the world suggests the recovery will be slow and consumers will be spending less and differently.

It will be necessary to work closely with customers to fit back into their pattern for restarting and managing unsold stocks. Not everyone will have survived. It will be a world for the mentally strong, the solid balance sheet and probably some government help. Quite a lot of brands and retailers have behaved well with suppliers and absorbed or shared the costs of ordered goods, but others have cancelled abruptly and decisions will be needed. Tanners in India appear to have been exceptionally hard hit by uncompensated cancellations.

For marketers and product development teams going back to Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper “A theory of Human Motivation” makes sense. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at a stroke the top three layers appear to have been removed from people’s lives, and the bottom two have become uncomfortably dependent on government support.

Mike blog


Source Maslow: Wikipedia Commons

The whole concept of “lockdown” involves an emphasis on security and physical safety, with the American “shelter in place” term telling us clearly to ignore the ego, social belonging and self-actualisation of the top three.

Not surprising then that the luxury goods companies have all downgraded forecasts, not merely because many consumers will have less disposable income and tourists will be down, but because materialism and status will have reduced consumer importance for some time. We will start to move back into the upper part of the triangle through advertising our charity giving to friends on social media.

What consumers will buy is likely to be exactly what the leather industry has always cried out for: items of quality that last. The new priorities of needs in footwear, bags, gloves – which well marketed should come back strongly – and garments will be those features of comfort and protection that offer a degree of timelessness. The overnight jump from the top to the bottom of the pyramid, from love to safety, was abrupt and stressful, not helped by the future being so uncertain. As well as being strong and lasting, we should not overlook the fact that the biophilic aspect of leather, an item from nature, brings comfort in the world of plastic and metal. A touch of anti-bacterial treatment here and there, while not pretending to kill the virus, would help reinforce that feeling.

Reducing the stress in the lives of our consumers can offer a mutual benefit and offer a positive objective for us all in exceptional times.

Mike Redwood
April 16, 2020