The battles of Bangladesh and California

Redwood Comment
Published:  25 November, 2020
Dr Mike Redwood

The leather industry continues to complain about life, the universe and everything; perhaps this is the best evidence that it has largely survived the most unexpected and horrendous year in history. We have not seen the mass loss of good companies that we expected a few weeks into the pandemic as it swept from Asia to Europe and on to the USA. 

There has been some recovery from the huge initial impact, and the figure of a 25-30% decline in sales remains the most mentioned outcome for the year. Although the future remains uncertain, generally it is felt that trade should steadily get better, with some suggestion that post vaccine many stalled sectors will recover quickly. For areas like luxury, 2020 has been a severe shock after decades of strong growth, but for the general leather trade, experience in widely fluctuating raw prices, it has all been stressful and difficult, but mostly manageable.

Given that we are now seeing the arrival of effective vaccines, nearly a year of house arrest has an end in sight, and we have a month or two of roll out to anticipate what the future will look like. While we were incarcerated, the generations have flipped, or at least the change that had already happened has become obvious. The younger Y and Z generations started to dominate and were happy to drive rapid development in online retail and cashless purchasing.

While this change was always coming, it has been harder for the leather industry to grasp that it carries big attitudinal elements that find us with consumers bereft of understanding about leather and natural materials, and reduced interest in owning “things”. Making good leather alone is no longer enough, tanners must quickly learn to speak fluent consumer.

At the same time, these younger consumers have a greater interest in the planet, largely based on superficial knowledge picked up from friends and limited sources. Since most of this is not accurate, global promotion and education is required.

With that education it would be good if we could include positive news about having wiped out some of the big negatives that repeatedly hit the press about leather. The first would be to get the CSR aspects of Savar in Bangladesh right and the leather and leather products form Bangladesh being talked about for what they have achieved. As the leather industry more loudly promotes leather as responsibly made and “sustainable”, the current Savar remains a major sore that captures every conversation. A properly structured Bangladesh leather industry should be able to take some of the business that will leave China as costs there rise and companies put resilience into their supply chains. Surely the leather industry can help push this in the right directions.

Proposition 65 in California is another issue that seems to drag on. This became law in November 1986 and has become a money making exercise, skimming money off companies by taking them through the courts. It turned on Chrome VI in leather a couple of years ago and has been making life a misery for a small number of brands since. The premise behind the law is simple:

“Proposition 65 requires businesses to provide warnings to Californians about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm”.

It is hard to find an objective justification for putting chrome tanned leather in this category given that Cr VI is not used, and that to suffer you need to ingest quite large amounts – perhaps by eating a couple of pairs of heavily contaminated shoes. While cancer is not a joke, scaring consumers and deliberately damaging an industry for the sake of easy cash feels very wrong. Not helped by the fact that it adds ammunition to the animal rights group who refuse to accept the by-product status of hides and skins in a state that should be celebrating leather as a perfect example of a wonderful material for a forward thinking consumer.

Other areas, like the steady battle to get the term “leather” properly recognised and to fight for a fair position on the sustainable ranking, are now engaged and create some real hope that the new purchasers will not be steadily bombarded with negatives: so if we could find some greater pressure to put behind the battles of Bangladesh and California, and other such areas, the benefit to the industry would be immense.

Mike Redwood
November 25, 2020

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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