Mike Redwood

Columnist

International Leather Maker


In the modern world of short attention spans, these articles are put on social media with easy links to encourage a quick read. I have been using Twitter since June 2008 and do it myself, but with Twitter now only for specialist users, the business side of the leather industry uses LinkedIn as its main forum.

I cannot say it is very comfortable seeing it blatantly used for self-publicity and as a casual forum for overworked leather executives but, for the moment, the leather industry echo chamber sits on the Internet in the pages of the mighty LinkedIn.

So, when my article Recognising leather scientists was posted a couple of weeks ago and highlighted awards for younger leather researchers, there was a quick response from one well-respected industry figure. He posted “celebrate yes, but science needs funding more than a clap and a congratulation”.

That the leather industry needs research funding is very sadly self-evident and regular readers will probably note that these columns have regularly argued that the industry needs to devote more resources to R&D; and I am sure I argued it even before as I was involved in a succession of companies that profited from supporting innovative leathers.

In the leather industry, where research is done, by whom, with what level of openness and with what objectives has been fuzzy for many years, and the financing of that research moved away from the tanneries steadily in the first half of the 20th century and into total decline in the second half as research bodies became testing houses and chemical companies got overwhelmed by regulatory matters.

Funding crisis

So, there was a crisis over the past few decades that we all saw but failed to resolve. While governments have pulled away funding pleading poverty, it has been a fight to find research funds as they come available in fits and starts. Watching the EU over the last three decades, we have seen the leather industry extract significant amounts for various ideas, usually as a result of relentless efforts by the Cotance team towards identifying and highlighting opportunities.

This continues with pandemic recovery funding and I remain certain that, around the world, the leather industry should be fighting just as hard to get some of the climate adaptation funding to support the introduction of known modern technology and research new ideas. At the moment, competitive materials of all types have a better record of raising finance for research and greater clarity of their objectives. With research, we tend to see a division into:

  • Close to market developments
  • Developments based on firm specific skills
  • Long term ideas.

Some tanneries have done excellent work on the wide area of sustainability and are seeing the benefit as the global dialogue changes, and they are shown to have had a policy of research, education and investment that has been determined and transparent over the years. The few other tanneries who have in-house research are working on only the first two. We have seen considerable benefits from longer term thinking from the machinery sector and from it some major advances, while the chemical companies appear to have worked almost totally on environmental and sustainable matters that are close to market.

Given the structure of our industry and the nature of the companies and people involved, the large sums required look as though they will be hard to uncover, but they will need to be found if the leather industry is to progress and stay competitive. It is good to be talking about it.

A leather research conversation

I put the attention of readers of this column in the direction of the IULTCS Young Scientist Awards, since they highlight the fact that a lot of institutions and individuals of which we know very little are involved in leather research. We will never attract more money if we do not know what is currently going on and talk about it. Where are our leading research institutes? What are they working on? Do our research conferences, surviving technical journals and our active trade magazines properly reflect that work? In a world where we say that marketing must be a conversation, is there one on leather research?

If a wealthy industry stakeholder wanted to support leather research, how would they know which projects to back or where to spend their money?

Our big European leather research associations were at the centre of the leather industry life and excellent at achieving a high profile. Professor Procter had an enormous reputation for advancing leather science when the industry collected funds for a new research laboratory to go alongside his leather teaching facility in 1913. But the research bodies we have now are smaller, less celebrated and more scattered. Most of us know little about them, their funding or their choice of research.

Over the past 10 years, I have seen no general appeals for research funds from institutions or trade associations and no industry clarity on where we need to go next. We need to understand where go next as a highly technical industry based on a natural material. It might mean multiple directions, but it cannot be merely more of the same.

I do hope that, if we celebrate the young scientist awards and learn more about all those researching in leather science, their research paths and the institutions supporting them, we may unlock new funds for them. As the person who commented two weeks ago said, “science needs funding”. Perhaps a pat on the back can help.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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