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International trade has declined surprisingly little as a result of the tariff driven mission of the 45th President of the U.S. and the ravages of the pandemic, but it will not survive. President Trump saw trade as a binary win-or-lose proposition, which America’s size guaranteed he would win.
As any tanner would have told him, the world does not work quite like that. It is clear that very few politicians comprehend the complexity of supply chains and the way modern technology has created an integrated network of logistics and added value for almost everything we consume. Stop buying from China, and the U.S. cannot build or repair its top of the range F-35 fighter jets, each of which requires 417kg of rare-earth materials. America closed its mining capabilities for these when it realised how cheaply it could buy from China.
From the beginnings of trade, hides and skins were being moved around the world, and quite often hide covered boats were used for part of that shipping, as can be seen today in places like Tibet. The complexity of the global trade related to leather is easily seen when the importance of hides from the U.S., of chemicals from Europe and machinery from Italy is considered. Curiously, the leather industry remains one of the very few industries where you can find an artisan making traditional clogs with local vegetable tanned hides and wood he has shaped from a 6-8 inch diameter sycamore tree cut while still green with old swivel knives.
Yet, this mix of local craft and international trade has always been one of the historic strengths of leather, noted in the way that Moroccan leather was to be found over the centuries made throughout Europe and in 19th century U.S., and Russian leather production, too, was often copied. Cordovan became so ubiquitous that it soon was a colour as well as a wide series of leather types on different raw materials.
This requirement for international export and import in the leather industry looks like it will continue, despite the best efforts of our political leaders or the impact of robots and AI replacing cheap labour, just as it has survived the pandemic. Yet, the increased requirement for transparency and sustainability, the need for more resilience and the growing separation between China and the U.S. does make it likely that supply chains will change. Generally, they will become shorter and more transparent, and more complex as back up arrangements are put in place for more “just-in-case” scenarios. The reality of the leather industry as a very real network, as opposed to a linear chain, will be apparent.
This does not mean China will be isolated by the global industry. The JV tanneries there, the linkages, trade fairs etc. will remain as important as ever. But the relationships were already changing as China moved from an exporter to a consumer nation, and this will accelerate. Otherwise, the shorter, simpler routes to supply should make it easier to control key areas such as the battle against slave labour and the authenticity of the raw material supply, including links to biodiversity and animal welfare, all of which are identified as major concerns of young consumers.
Changes are inevitable. Leather will not prosper on the back of constant complaints about competitive materials, but on the direct and positive actions of tanners.
March 9, 2021
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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