Mike Redwood

Columnist

International Leather Maker


Two weeks ago, I sat on a panel discussing leather at De Montfort University in Leicester. The Chairperson asked questions directly to the panellists, including one about why the leather industry had produced the Leather Manifesto for COP26. Given that time was limited, I answered the question briefly although one of the actual authors of the document was sitting at the other end of the panel being asked different questions.

The document was signed by around 30 international leather bodies, showing remarkable harmony for a fragmented industry. It was issued in October before a November meeting, so its immediate impact would clearly be limited, but that did not stop a few rather disparaging social media messages noting that Stella McCartney had access to the platform while leather was nowhere to be seen.

Institutions matter

For me, the item sent a quite different message, one I have referred to in passing but now want to make totally clear. In any industry, institutions matter. They are the only way an industry can get access to the corridors of power, to journalists and to the major international events on a steady long-term basis. While some are arguing that our trade bodies are of no value, and trade fairs little better, I take exactly the opposite view. Right now, both are more important than ever.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, I do accept that the industry had no interest in finding arguments against replacing kangaroo leather with plastic in soccer footwear. It was better to “stay below the parapet” and not start a battle. When we first started Leather Naturally, we were told that promoting leather generically could only harm the price structure. Detractors said that, since every available hide and skin got tanned, rising human populations would create a scarcity and tanners would inevitably get richer. That was always going to fail.

Studies showed that consumers were confused about leather and industry communications almost entirely related to romancing the product amongst ourselves. This is a view reinforced by websites that were rarely updated, unattractively coloured and loaded with insider jargon. Despite this, many tanners were ahead of the industry organisations and investing to support their belief in the environmental credentials of honestly produced leather. Perhaps this was the stimulus, and it is too general to say “all” the organisations were moribund, but the transformation has been huge in recent years.

Marketing is not the only job of a national trade organisation, but it must be able to sell the good points of its industry and its products, and be willing to put up speakers to each and every audience. For most of the world, this change was well developed by COP26 and the Leather Manifesto showed that clearly.

Manifesto manifest

In only 350 words, it said that society needed to recognise the potential of natural fibres for their positive contribution to reducing the climate impacts of consumer products, and in so doing reduce unnecessary reliance on fossil-fuel-based materials. It emphasised the need for proper LCA methodologies, up to date and transparently presented, that accurately account for the environmental impact of fossil-fuel based materials along with the importance of “slow fashion”, durable products and items that can be used many times, repaired, refurbished and last for years.

I sent it to my own Member of Parliament and, unusually, got an immediate response to say that he would send it at once to the relevant government ministers. It soon started to show its value and, with each of the organisations having their own mailing lists, a unified, clear and simple message on the value of leather started to reach further than any viral post on social media could, important although those are. And, since it was signed, journalists and governments immediately knew who to approach on the subject.

The day following my conference in Leicester, the Leather and Hide Council of America (LHCA) sponsored a session on shifting global supply chains from linear to circular at The Economist 9th Annual Sustainability Week in London. Kevin Latner, Vice-President of the LHCA, presented preliminary results from a new LCA, which already shows how horrendously wrong figures from the now discredited Higg Index are, a tool which has been used for many years and has caused immeasurable harm to leather.

International Council of Tanners

I can vaguely remember my first International Tanners Council meeting in Buenos Aires in 1978. It was a packed house and involved important decisions on the definition of leather and other matters. The nature of society at that time meant that its pronouncements carried weight both within and without the industry.

So, it was saddening to hear the other day that it was to be considered a weak organisation with little influence. If that is true, it needs to change in the way that many national organisations have. They have revitalised their thinking and built formal and informal relations with other sectors so that the power of the total lets them speak more powerfully. France, Italy, Brazil, the U.S., India, Ethiopia and the UK all demonstrate this, as do others. With organisations like the IULTCS, the LWG, LN and O4L filling their specialist areas well, the International Council of Tanners needs to regain its ascendancy fast.

The gap these trade associations and organisations fill cannot be replaced by clever or creative individual activity. It is not one or the other; we need them all to achieve success and a proper future. The message to every tanner is to pay your dues, support your trade organisations and recognise that this is about the survival of the leather industry and, with it, the survival of the planet.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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