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After the 1990s, the world supercharged globalisation and pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, led by China. Things had been improving since the 1950s, but the rise in the digital economy appears to have so improved communications that there was a huge acceleration.
The leather industry played its part. A piece of leather provides a large number of jobs in light industry making footwear, garments, bags, gloves and other items. These pull largely unskilled people into the workforce, teach them skills, provide steady incomes and create identifiable tax revenues for governments. In a number of tanneries and glove factories I have seen the changes from start-up, when staff were bussed to work, then needed provision for bicycles and scooter storage, and finally sizeable car parks. The leather industry was early in this cycle, starting in places like Korea and Taiwan in the 1960s where the outcomes for progress have been outstanding.
Sustainability involves using industrial development to end poverty
If one reads the Brundtland Report on the basis that sustainability involves the requirement to use technological and industrial development wisely to end poverty without doing harm to the environment for future generations, then the leather industry has certainly played its part. With few exceptions, the new tanneries built to replace redundant capacity elsewhere had better layouts, equipment and came with proper provision for waste treatment. They were better environments for workforce safety and wellbeing, and for the planet. Most of the locations about which the leather industry worries today are older legacy situations where attitudes still require change and laws enforcing.
But the pandemic has reversed this progress, putting some 90 million back into poverty and with changes to free trade thinking, the return ticket appears to have been discarded. Developing countries appear to have lost the historic route of export-led growth to grow employment and income.
The global leather industry should still be able to play its part, as it has done in the past. It is no longer in the top three of the world’s manufacturing industries, where it sat for centuries, but it is still important. And many of the countries who need to reduce poverty have high volumes of good quality raw material. Think of Ethiopia and much of the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa. Think of Bangladesh and other Asian countries. The influential Professor of Economics at Ashoka University in India, Arvind Subramanian, argued recently that looking at the proportion of unskilled workers in China and its proportion of exports in certain areas, China “over-exports low-skilled goods such as textiles, clothing, leather and footwear”. Given that China’s raw material supplies are limited, we need to help move that production to the raw material source where it can be of greater benefit.
But such moves must be done properly. Dare we shift more to Bangladesh where merely moving tanneries a few miles down the road from Hazaribagh to Savar because they were polluting the River Buriganga appears to have been a huge failure.
Very roughly speaking, it has taken the best part of 20 years and US$100m, yet the new central effluent treatment plant appears to be missing essential elements and to be only half the required size. According to a scathing article in New Age, the Dhaka-based English language daily newspaper, “the park (Savar) releases both liquid and solid wastes into the adjacent River Dhaleshwari, undoing the very objective of the tannery relocation”.
The leather industry destroys its own reputation
I never cease to wonder at how bright executives around the world continue to allow the leather industry to destroy its own reputation by letting these things happen. There are some good tanners in Bangladesh, and all the workforce should be able to have decent jobs, with proper workwear and conditions. Even the Bangladesh textile industry seems to have improved more since the 2013 Rana Plaza, while the leather industry has spent a fortune on self-harm.
Globalisation might in part be reversing, but it does not mean we can hide from some basic consequences. Leather is a complex material on which millions of livelihoods depend, and for the future benefit of the biodiversity and climate needs of the planet has to be used to the full. Any damage to its reputation risks this, and we cannot ignore it and pretend it is nothing to do with us.
Second, after the financial crash we began to see that globalisation was leaving certain groups behind, including those left unemployed in the developed world as their ageing factories shut. If we have learned anything in the last decade, it is that all such groups of the ignored and left behind need to be helped or problems will arise.
Amazingly, the leather industry can take a lead in both the developing and developed world in providing these employment opportunities at different levels. The workers in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and elsewhere deserve the opportunity to find employment, adding value to their own raw material. And as companies in the luxury and automotive sector, for example, have shown, there is valid work for leather makers and artisans in the leather networks of the developed world, too.
October 28, 2020
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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