Given we have been overwhelmed by the biggest global pandemic in recent history, an unstable geopolitical and trade situation and climate change looming ever closer, we need such cheering up, as do the young, who have suffered disproportionately in the pandemic as a final blow of 12 difficult years since the financial crisis. Bigger debts, fewer jobs, poorer pay, difficult access to decent housing and sneering older generations who somehow started throwing the term ‘snowflake’ at anyone who answered back. Yet, I have seen figures that say for every social security retiree in the U.S. in 1950, there were 16 workers, whereas today that number is about two. The figures must be similar for Japan and most of Europe, with China racing up behind. So, those older folk need to ask themselves who will be paying their family’s future pensions, all while handling the cost of cleaning up pandemic debt and dealing with the climate crisis.

Around me companies, including tanneries, have started to hire again, and I am glad to say young people figure prominently in this new hiring. Society around the world cannot leave the young unemployed. They need lives, work, income, stability, training, experience, and most of all, a positive view of the future. Leather can and must help. And youth gives back in volumes. They are dynamic, creative, communicative, in-tune with a vital consumer base that our industry struggles to talk to – just look at our social media all talking to each other, and proud of it for some reason I have never understood – and need to be gaining experience fast to help a world in the midst of major societal change with a funky digital future arriving tomorrow. A future not many tanners are ready for.

30 years ago, I hired an English footballer, Garry Lineker, to help promote our tannery in Japan on a five-year deal. Soccer forwards do not have as long a career as other players, so although still young, he was close to the end of his playing years and I secured an affordable deal by offering incremental income and a “corporate” contract not dependent on him scoring goals every week. The huge impact he had was obvious in places as diverse as Tokyo Station and the Honda works canteen; or even visiting one of our tanneries in Northampton where he spent time to talk to every worker and sign autographs.

Older leaders of our industry, and some old minded younger ones, still think the industry should look to celebrity endorsement, but the world has moved on and new generations have arrived. What were called key opinion leaders in China and are now better known as “influencers” are often no more than students sitting at home in their bedrooms with a smartphone and a gimbal: and a modern youth’s perfect understanding of social media. As the world has moved online during the pandemic, this group have increased their relevance and paid and unpaid, they have greatly aided companies selling products on the internet.

As an industry, we need to make use of such talent, and we need an army of young employees who understand and like leather, to respond to the abuse of science and the law to decry leather as toxic and unsustainable when it is the substitutes they recommend, which mostly should be called out. One press release does not end such a war, it will take an army of foot-soldiers years of battling.

Role models to shout about
Having young scientists identified as doing leading edge work offers us role models to shout about. Hon Wei Ng, Research Assistant from New Zealand Leather and Shoe Research Association (LASRA), Palmerston North, New Zealand, is working on a ‘Study on Molecular Level Collagen Structure Changes of Enzymatic Depilation Using X-Ray Scattering’. This thorough research is all about updating our traditional approach to unhairing, which is dangerous for the workforce, problematic for effluent treatment and gives us the bad odour hated by communities close by our plants. Replacing it is long overdue.

The second prize is close to my own heart as it has been organised by the IULTCS with Leather Naturally. The work relates to improving the efficiency and process stability of anaerobic digesters used to produce biogas from tannery waste. Caroline Borges Agustini from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Porto Alegre, Brazil, won the award with a project entitled ‘Hydrocarbon Release During the Biodegradation of Solid Waste from Tanneries for Biogas Production’. This is a technology much underused in tanneries around the world, yet one that is profoundly practical and useful.

It is a double delight to me that Caroline has won a grant that has been given my name – The Professor Mike Redwood Young Leather Scientist Grant 2021 Sustainability / Environmental Award. An unexpected, yet wonderful, honour to be involved after more than 50 years of making leather and 56 years of being a member of the IULTCS via the SLTC supporting youth in taking the leather industry forward.

Mike Redwood
March 3, 2021

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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