As new working lifestyles emerge from the year of pandemic, governments in many countries have seen their relationship with working people of all levels changing. An editorial headline in The Economist a few days ago pronounced:

“In the rich world, the era of sharp-edged capitalism is giving way to a golden age for labour”

The well-argued supplement looked at changes that suggest business and society are shifting towards making people important and policies need to change accordingly. The “you are on your own” mentality is widely accepted as having created mental health and other problems and being less suited for the fast-evolving modern world.

Leather is far more than merely another material
Many of the elements of the ongoing changes may not appear obviously pertinent to tanneries themselves but are clearly of major relevance when you consider the leather industry’s wider network and supply chains, from farm through slaughterhouses to manufacturers, brands and retail. The role of leather in society is an important matter. It is far more than merely another material, and perhaps that is one part of the reason certain groups attack it with such vitriol and emotion rather than rational analysis.

A large part of the value of leather relates to the experiential; not only in owning and using items made of leather, but also in the production of those items and the leather that goes into them. This remains very much centred around the skills and judgment of individuals. In the tannery, we seek out the advice of the individuals who are best able to evaluate the temper, the substance and the look of the leather. Deeply respected, they are found in different areas of every tannery, and managers listen to them before proclaiming on the suitability of leather.

The consumer uncovers the benefits in the humanity of the material
Over the last century, leather became an engineered product, and so it must be to meet the consistent quality and environmental standards we work to. But it is also a natural one, where the consumer uncovers the benefits in the humanity of the material in the aesthetics of the leather and the history leather gathers and holds over months and years of use.

Tanneries themselves are not labour-intensive places. Those with a very large proportion of employees in the wet-end will probably need urgent investment as this implies they have not established effective water management or material handling. There is no doubt that some of the startling advances made by the machinery companies, mostly designed to help improve standardisation and quality, have eliminated jobs, but more often than not, new tasks have been created in subjective assessment, control of colour management systems, on the environmental side and elsewhere.

But more important has always been the multiplier effect once the leather leaves the tannery. Over the years, we have seen some areas of leather footwear manufacture automated, mostly to do with the soling process, but it essentially remains a quite skilled, hands-on operation, as do most areas in which leather is used, from automotive seating to hand-bag manufacturing. This explains why leather has lost share to synthetics in sectors where automation is easier and skills minimal, but this is the moment to fight back based on quality, longevity, employment, environment and biodiversity rather than to hide from.

While there is some evidence that consumers are more interested in animal welfare than human rights, we cannot ignore the role of dignified employment that the leather industry can offer in the battle to reduce poverty. Providing meaningful employment through the utilisation of hides and skins to produce a long-lasting material that consumers like because they find leather to improve their lives is a public good that has to be celebrated.

We now know that the number of jobs existing in the world is not limited and that advancing technology creates new types of jobs, and the associated productivity improvements lead to greater general wealth and more demand, so more jobs still. What is good about the wider leather industry is that its raw material is widely distributed globally and so can help increase manufacturing employment in the places of most need. With that in mind, the wider industry must collaborate harder to correct labour abuses seen in places like Bangladesh.

And everywhere in the world, we need to remember the importance of repair, refurbishment and end of life repurposing. This has been part of the leather industry for thousands of years and must be revitalised to avoid wasteful disposal and unnecessary depletion of planetary resources. In this way, the leather industry has its own history of being embedded in society since its very start, and this meant many skills have been developed over the centuries. These “crafts” from European “clogs” to Ethiopian “lunch boxes” need to be retained, and increasingly we are learning that they are linked to the biodiversity of the planet.

Despite the many issues that face the leather industry, it is essential to recognise and proclaim what is good about leather and what makes it special. Without question, the provision of employment and associated training, with the opportunity for women to advance as well as men is one of the most important for us to nurture and celebrate.

People should be truly recognised as “our most important asset”.

Mike Redwood
April 21, 2021

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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