Given the audience, I chose to focus on the fact that in developing countries tanning provides good jobs, and that the leather produced offers large-scale employment to huge numbers of workers who will be pulled out of unemployment or the black economy and help create a modern middle class society.

All leather workers learn useful skills, but only a few require major training before starting. The leather industry is a very good foundation upon which a country can start the process of industrialisation.The raw material is a renewable by-product that will not run out in the way that raw oil or coal will, and tanning locally supports the historic husbandry that has created the fabric and traditions of so many countries, still employing hundreds of millions around the world. The tanning stages do require a thorough approach to health and safety and the environment. Fortunately, these are areas in which UNIDO has a very good track record.

This sat amidst an intense discussion about the original Millennium Development Goals, which never hit the headlines in the way the newer Sustainable Development Goals have impacted upon us. Indeed, while I was well aware of them, I had not seen them abbreviated to MDG before and had to be reminded what the endless conversation around MDGs meant. The concern at the meeting was that achieving the MDGs required wealth and income to trickle, but UNIDO found that the vital trickle down mechanism had not been functioning, leaving levels of poverty unchanged.

I left the meeting early and travelled back to Vienna with this very much on my mind. The Scotsman Adam Smith wrote about the “Invisible Hand” in his Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759. It says that despite the greedy rich chasing personal gains, they inevitably benefit all society through passing their wealth down to those who do the work for them. The trouble with this in a globalised world is that it is estate agents, luxury goods retailers and fast car salesmen in the wealthy capitals of Europe who benefit from this trickle down, rather than the impoverished who desperately need it.

This means leather is even more important than merely a top quality circular material. It can pull millions out of poverty and a look at South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s is merely one of many examples. This role as an employer, a trainer, an uplifter of the poor around the world needs to be exploited and celebrated. But it must be done with care. What we see in Bangladesh is not a credit for the leather industry; the jobs are vital, but we must make them safe and stop the environment being destroyed. In the souks in Morocco employed numbers in tanning and leather work are immense, but it is wrong to say it has always been dirty and dangerous like it is today. The filth, the addition of modern chemicals to the mix without thought of worker health or waste treatment are modern additions. Standing in pits all day is done as a tourist attraction: most tanners had long given it up by the 14th century. As an industry, if we want leather to be a force for good, as it should be, then we need to address areas like this. We cannot stand back.

A New Year gift

One body which deserves huge credit for its efforts in the area is the leather team at UNIDO. Their wastewater treatment and worker education programmes are outstanding examples of what can be done; but their programme needs more support and recognition.

Perhaps for a new year gift for us all, if the new President of the United States is serious about strengthening global institutions, he will reconsider his country’s attitude to UNIDO and rejoin after 25 years or so of absence and give it the funding it needs. He signed some of the documents when the U.S. walked away; to change his heart would show a new understanding of how his country can quietly but powerfully demonstrate how to make a global difference.

That would make a great New Year gift for us all.

Mike Redwood
December 22, 2020

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

Publication and Copyright of “Redwood Comment” remains with the publishers of International Leather Maker. The articles cannot be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the publisher.