Any reasonable world requires societies to provide decent jobs for its people. Whether it is explained by the Brundtland definition of Sustainability, the Sustainable Development Goals or straightforward common-sense, citizens require fulfilling work.
Since the 1990s, governments have increasingly made policy moves suggesting that all such work will need a university degree. This foolishly overlooks carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers, train drivers and ambulance drivers along with hundreds of other jobs that require a sound education and good training but not bachelor’s degrees.
For centuries, the leather trade has provided many of these jobs and continues to do so, but why do we do rarely discuss it?
It is heartening to see every part of the industry now promoting one of the great environmental strengths of leather: its durability, as well as the fact that most articles made with it can be repaired. This is an aspect of leather as a truly sustainable material that was widely ignored until the last few years. Tanners knew it, of course, but promoting and developing the point was considered of no value.
The value of leather industry jobs
A similar disinterested attitude appears to apply to the many types of employment to be found in the wider leather network, or filière as the French define it.
It is important that the leather industry grasps the huge number of jobs found throughout the tannery, from the limeyard to finishing, and across the supply chain, including the making of shoes, gloves, garments and all manner of other things with leather. A well-equipped modern tannery employs numbers in single figures in unhairing and liming, whereas its finishing department, even with the best equipment, will need more to manage equipment, chemicals and the movement of goods. The tens or hundreds of employees in the tannery soon jumps into many thousands when considering all of the factories that produce leather products from leather goods to footwear.
These jobs matter. Not everyone is suited to sit behind a computer – a lot of people want to work with their hands. And, with longer working lives likely to involve different types of employment, it could be only one stage for some. However, it should be said that we often see those who start working with leather enjoying it so much that they proudly stick with it into old age. The old identifier of “shoe dogs” is not a made-up term, they are real folk who love working with products made of leather.
And these jobs should exist to offer opportunity in all countries, particularly in places such as the Indian subcontinent and Africa where growing populations require millions of new jobs every year. Just as they need to exist in older markets where many people still want to work in design and manufacturing.
Love of luxury
We also need to counter another trend that appeared in the 1990s: an excessive love of the luxury market. When we were talking about marketing the leather “brand” in the late 1980s and 1990s, industry leaders argued that anything beyond a brochure and a few swatch books would be an error. With hide and skin supply not linked to the growing demand for leather, any promotion would only upset the price structure, they said. Thus began an argument that rising populations and wealth would raise demand for leather and with it the price of leather and margins for tanners, making leather more of a luxury item. No need to mess about with wasteful marketing, they cried. Sometimes, whole industries can be foolish.
While leather is well suited for the luxury market, offering quality, exclusivity, longevity and beauty to brands that see their luxury products in enduring terms, it is not a luxury material per se. Leather is an honest material, hardworking and suitable for the tough moments and inclement weather just as much as the luxury automobile or the gentile salon.
Certainly, countries such as France and Italy have built fabulous reputations based on high-end artisanship, paying attention to every detail from raw material choice to the perfection of every stitch. They continue to create tens of thousands of high-quality jobs making their fine products. But the 20 billion plus square feet of leather produced each year worldwide is mostly far from the unaffordable prices of even “accessible luxury”. if such a thing can truly exist.
The vast majority of leather is produced through skilled manual work by hardworking people, trained to handle hides and skins, assess their quality and work with them in a very wide variety of ways. It is time that, as an industry, we acknowledge wholeheartedly that this work is not a second-rate career but holds real value for individuals and society.
Along with the value of natural materials, and stupidity of promoting fossil-based fabrics, any tanning industry representatives attending COP28 should remember that leather industry jobs have had a key role in pulling much of the world out of poverty – think of South Korea and China in recent times – and, given a chance, will do it again throughout the Global South. Jobs in the wider leather industry do matter.
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.