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All the evidence that we are seeing is of a world that is fighting hard to pretend that we have never had this pandemic and do not need to change. The press continues to write about the need for a greener world, a less consumptive world and to talk about a kinder society, but the signs on the ground are hard to spot.
Increasingly, the milestones to recovering economic activity are seen as those of the old economy – road traffic back as it was, pollution levels returning to pre-Covid standards, and consumer behaviour even more aggressive and unpleasant than we remembered before.
For a moment during the darkest days of the pandemic we saw an atmosphere of gratitude to everyone who worked in health. There was new respect for store staff keeping essential products on the shelves, for transportation staff, refuse collectors and others doing vital tasks which required exposure to others. Those working at home learned to bake bread, got interested in gardening, reading more books, appreciated technology and generally improved levels of consideration and kindness. Things began to look a little better for the planet.
Yet, rising unemployment has been real. Many types of work have changed forever, whatever governments think, and involve changes in how people live, locate and travel. The huge changes as society has jumped from agriculture to industrial and now to service industries could not be more clearly highlighted. Manufacturing and other sectors will also change as they have already been impacted by changing international and regional mobility and the risks of overcrowded production lines. The digital world that has given us the tools to communicate will be applied to many areas of manufacturing and agriculture.
Danger lies in neglecting training and failing to innovate
This, then, is a muddled situation where many citizens and their governments are struggling to think through the implications. Calm and good temper are being replaced by fear and resentment which are surfacing in unexpected ways. Leathermaking is in no way immune. Tanners who have done the best over the years, even those making the most traditional leathers, are those who have invested in their plant, buildings, systems and people. This needs to accelerate. Countries that complain about loss of manufacturing employment to areas with cheaper labour are invariably those that have neglected education and training, who have lost their innovative edge and whose businesses have chased short term financial gains. Many societies thought they were being clever losing what they called “sunset industries”, which included leather and its offshoots like shoe making. They have been proven wrong.
Covid-19 has clarified a few vital points that we must embed into our thinking. Making leather and products with leather is as relevant today as it was 1000 years ago. It creates valuable employment at many levels while creating useful products that last. Leather making is one of the best examples of how modern technology and traditional skills can be combined to fit perfectly with economies which are mature and those which are young. The recent renaissance of tanning and shoemaking in Portugal is indicative of how everything pulls together for the benefit of communities and economies and how the best of art can mix with the best of science.
We need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and all things plastic made from them. Renewable raw materials that come from natural origins like leather are vital. Products must be made with aftercare, repair and refurbish in mind as long product life is one of the biggest saving of virgin material and emissions.
So, however much global society is returning to previous levels of consumption, pollution and planetary disregard, the only route for leather is to fight for its position as the absolutely perfect material for the 21st century, encapsulating all that is right in terms of human and environmental advancement.
September 9, 2020
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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