We were also told that leather would inevitably end up 100% in luxury goods as a consequence of rising demand and limitations on supply. No one thought to mention how fussy the luxury trade can be about grades.

In reality it is easy to see that all this was foolish thinking; that there is nothing so special about the leather industry that allows it to escape competition, or to side step the need for relentless development, innovation and all the marketing skills available. We were right then that leather needed a strong ongoing promotional campaign, and hopefully readers of this are signed up to support the great current campaign proposal.

One reason that the demand for new materials has grown so fast is that we have had huge success globally in pulling people out of poverty into a rather wide definition of “middle class”. For many things this term becomes synonymous with “consumer”. At the same time richer “consumers” around the world the 21st century have been changing their consumption habits.

Half of all clothes are thrown away within a year

A look at a short Economist/Woolmark video highlights some key points. “Half of all clothes are thrown away within a year”. “Americans alone are buying five times more garments than in 1980”.

Most of this growth is supplied by cheap synthetic garments based on non-renewable fossil fuels. Many are not designed to withstand any more than one or two washes and often, in terms of carbon footprint, washing and maintenance constitutes 50% of the total. Given that over a third of all the plastic in the seas is from clothing arriving as micro particles off fleeces etc., this washing and cleaning of garments is a menace that looks almost impossible to deal with. In fact, a paper published in 2011 found that microfibres made up 85% of human-made debris on shorelines around the world.

A study released in June by the University of California Santa Barbara, in partnership with the outdoor company Patagonia, found that each wash of a synthetic fleece jacket released an average of 1.7g of microfibres.

A move to more natural fibres could be a major part of the solution, but as with nearly everything too much creates issues. The Aral Sea dried up because the USSR decided it would expand cotton production by irrigation using the rivers that fed the sea.

We need a product to replace these synthetics: leather?

What we need is a product that can replace fleece and other synthetic materials, and will be low maintenance, durable and generally can be repaired. You guessed it, we need more leather.

The problem that Apple had first with the iPad, and now has with the iPhone, is that consumers have decided to keep them longer, and not stand in line every twelve months for the latest model. Part of the slowdown in car purchasing in some parts of the world at least is similar, as cars are much better built in terms of quality than a few years ago. So, while the industry sorts out its future holding on to the car a year or two longer is the simplest decision to take. Financing via leasing was for a while pushing limited time ownership cycles but there is evidence that consumers are moving away from this approach back to full ownership. 

It certainly makes environmental sense to keep things for longer and bring to an end to economies based on cheap borrowing and wasteful impulse purchasing. It is argued that less than 20% of purchases are made via the classic route of recognising need, researching, checking and testing, followed by buying and assessing after purchase.

The future needs to be a compromise. We need to persuade more consumers to be more thoughtful about their approach to buying goods and services, and we need to make leather and our associated communications cool enough for the modern consumer to grasp their attention when they are spending, regardless of whether the purchase is one of impulse, emotion or carefully considered.

Dr Mike Redwood

January 9, 2019.


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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