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Riva del Garda , Italy
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North Carolina, USA
I had a dream; a dream that Clarks had announced the creation of 1000 jobs as they fought back against the ravages being done to the global economy and society by this wicked pandemic.
Reinvigorating supply chains to make them more local, more responsive to customer needs and more transparent. Revolutionising the distribution and sales side by introducing new consumer conversations, jumping to new style experiential stores and enhanced direct-to-consumer internet sales. Most of all, living the two centuries where putting people and working conditions first as the basic tenet of doing business, so that in a crisis like this, no one is made redundant, apprentice scheme numbers are increased as fewer jobs for school leavers and graduates make it likely to leave a generation starved; and jobs for older workers whose knowledge and skills of footwear and materials have many years of value if correctly harnessed.
It was of course a dream. I only mention Clarks because I live nearby their HQ. They were my top customer when I first became Technical Director of Holmes Halls Tannery in 1971. Our biggest production was the leather for their famous children’s sandals; a wonderful product for times when sneakers were confined to sports activities. My commercial contacts with them stopped nearly two decades ago, and most of my old colleagues have long since retired. I can only make the most general comments.
In the last few decades, the leather industry, largely lead by footwear, has helped pull two billion people in the world out of poverty. The danger is that at a stroke, this could be reversed by the sharp global recession we have entered. The move from corporate social responsibility (CSR) to environment, social and governance (ESG) has rightly raised the importance of people in the equation and reminds us that the Brundtland definition of sustainability held resolutely to the importance of ending poverty and looking after the weak and disadvantaged. I am convinced this means we need to look at matters differently than we have been doing in the last forty years.
I have taken some push back for my recent comments in this regard on the meat industry, albeit they were not intended to be particularly contentious. I have re-read what I wrote; I have rechecked my sources and stand by my opinions.
I recognise that abattoirs are complex and significant investment will be needed to introduce the automation required to improve working conditions, but my point was to highlight that this is the time to get these priorities and associated communications right. I’m not the enemy here, and there is no value dancing on a pin to defend the indefensible. A post pandemic attack on the livestock and meat industry, and with it leather, is inevitable. Consider the article in the Financial Times of June 9, 2020, which arrived on my desk as I write this: “Slaughterhouses become Covid-19 hotspots” - a horrendous piece, and hard to refute.
We cannot afford to give opponents apparently justifiable complaints. I remain minded that tanneries, including those owned by meat packers, offer better working environments for employees when properly managed than appears to be the case at the two ends of our supply chain.
Despite that, the tanning industry itself certainly has to accept it has many weak links around the world where unacceptable practices continue, and it would be good to emerge from COVID-19 with a determination to promote leather and its entire supply chain as an ESG leader, getting the balance right with people, planet and profit. They cannot be resolved overnight, but we need to demonstrate we have a plan.
With the high cost of raw material and chemicals as a proportion of costs, even when hide markets are at a low, tanners finding themselves with zero cash coming from sales will be in danger of running out of cash when they start up. Such desperate times for some will make it hard to re-align priorities when survival is at stake, but the tanners I know around the world have great record of trying to put workforce welfare first.
Sadly right now companies of all sorts around the world are being rewarded with higher share prices because their very first move has been to get rid of employees. This is deeply depressing and I sincerely hope that it will be looked back on as a major error. For future strength, we need robust and resilient supply chains, we need fuller employment, educated middle class consumers and more versatile staff with good terms and conditions. Leather is only as good as its complete supply network, we cannot afford weak links. We hear a lot about the need for a ‘green’ recovery, and leather must be at the heart of the material side of that; but before we can be green, we must help our various communities by providing and maintaining employment.
The commodity experiment has failed leather. Leather now must sell on its value as a truly sustainable material capable of being engineered and crafted in unique ways that build on its versatility. And sustainability now must go wider to the full integrity involved in the ESG agenda.
I know some tanners who do embrace this concept and I retain the dream that it can spread to the leather industry as a whole.
June 10, 2020
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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