We need to innovate out of the commodity trap

Redwood Comment
Published:  26 May, 2021
Dr Mike Redwood

In a world grown accustomed to low prices as businesses prioritise efficiency, it is hard to avoid a commodity trap. Efficiency has been very much about reducing costs through a mix of using lower cost labour and higher levels of mechanisation in order to achieve shareholder gains. 

The pandemic has introduced a required dimension of resilience. Lengthy supply chains, efficient only if all is working perfect, have caught both governments and companies out.
In the search for PPE, governments faced long narrow supply chains and often let unskilled staff push money at them, pushing up prices, often receiving non-spec materials and watching their cash being siphoned off in large quantities.

The hide is a marginal by-product, bordering on an inconvenience
Leather has always had the problem of inelasticity. Being a by-product, the supply of hides and skins holds no relationship whatsoever to demand. For the abattoir or meat packer, the hide is a marginal by-product, bordering on a costly, bulky and inconvenient waste item. As such, selling it all off quickly at the best price has been preferred, and historically this was done via auctions. These, of course, largely commoditised the tanners’ raw material.

Despite this, certain raw has always been specific to particular leather types and from the start of leather education 150 years ago, students have learnt about the importance of climate and husbandry on hide quality. One of the most relevant texts is still John Arnold’s 1925 cloth-backed book on “Hides and Skins” where he covers “virtually all types of hides and skins used in the tanning industry”.

Increasingly, the 20th century tanner has become more specific about the quality of hides needed for each sector and customer. Some now buy all the hides from specific abattoirs and semi-process the selections they do not require to sell elsewhere as wet-blue of wet-white. This can create a natural tension between the tanner and abattoir, with one seeing their hides as agricultural commodities while tanners are end-use focussed and very sensitive to consumer demand.

We have seen these pressures over the last few years as raw prices have fluctuated widely, with little relationship to consumer demand, and until the latest calming, we have been seeing it again as hide sellers have carried hides and skins upwards with other agricultural commodities. This has come with a curious side story of large quantities of US hides being thrown away, following similar tales from around the world about sheepskins.

Although there have been momentary issues in the past, this is a first for the leather industry and has come at the moment the industry has had a collective realisation that as long as we make leather properly, it is one of the very best materials for saving the planet from resource depletion, biodiversity loss and climate change.

Making leather properly does not mean always making the same leather
A significant portion of the blame must certainly lie with decades of refusal to market leather and speak up on its behalf. We sold on momentum, believing that it was like a fine wine that would become more valuable as populations grow, the global middle class grows and demand increased. But making leather properly does not mean continuing always to make the same leather.

This is because there is another aspect; one foreseen a 100 years ago - substitutes. In 1925, Arnold wrote that the industries turning out these substitutes are still in their infancy “yet the development of this competition has become, during the last 10 or 15 years, so striking as to call …. it a substantial factor in estimating the future demand for hides and skins.”

We might say that we have had a hundred-year reprieve, but that would be untrue. During the last 100 years, leather has routinely been displaced by rubber, textiles and synthetics. We have been the frog slowly boiled alive; somehow complaints about nomenclature or current bio-based materials containing amounts of polyurethane, while justified, can feel trivial as the tsunami hits us.

Alongside the need for strong communication, there sits another little discussed fact. That in many lower grades of raw material we have carried on with the approach of recent history; making them look like plastic. With the alternates getting better, the prices more stable, the handling easier, the consumer indifferent, switching has become easier for the brands and manufacturers. In these sectors the case for leather is not so compelling, especially if the old covering treatments compromise performance as well as appearance.

Not all leather items need to be full aniline and show every scratch and ailment, but whatever we produce must have obvious value. Innovation requires taking a proper look at the market, listening to consumers, and adapting the products to fit those needs. Part of our love for leather has been its incredible ability to accept changes in this way so as always to be current. Yet, this cannot happen if we close our eyes and carry on making yesterday’s product and complaining about the competition.

We do have to counter the prevailing mood about livestock and leather with relentless communication, targeting the younger people who are now the biggest consumers, but they need us to offer leathers that demonstrate an interest to meet their real needs, and this particularly matters with lower grade raw material. We talk about leather having strength in its beauty and its properties, too often we abuse lower grades and damage both. We need to innovate out of the commodity trap.

In 1925, Arnold hoped that if synthetics got better and started to take significant share of the leather market, raw-stock prices would fall “so low as greatly to increase the competitive advantage of leather and thereby to apply a spontaneous corrective.”

This no longer feels like a solution.

Mike Redwood
May 26, 2021

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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