The situation looked so bad that this felt like a forlorn hope. Tanners and brands were struggling with lost access to their customers, closed businesses, losses of 40% of the annual sales and an entire season wiped out at a stroke. Tanners in many parts of Asia were left abandoned with unpaid stock. It looked dire.

Adapting as the world recalibrates after the pandemic
Yet talking with the industry around the world today things look much more optimistic. As the year progressed, we saw leather industry leadership respond well to the challenge. Losses were mitigated, cash was generally well managed, and strategies adapted to offer greater flexibility for a less certain future until the world recalibrates after the pandemic. Most of all around the world hiring has re-started and young people are involved.
Be it in Europe or the USA the numbers of young people being offered work generally has increased considerably, and in the leather industry we see and hear of hiring at graduate, apprentice and shopfloor levels. It is no longer unusual to be involved in open discussions with senior tanners about the average age of the workforce. We know diverse managements and workforces create better business, and age is a part of that diversity. Given that the big pandemic shift has accelerated the shift to next generation consumers having them in the workforce makes understanding them that much easier rather than the token of an owner’s offspring in a half-hearted marketing department.

This is heartening and is even more important given the role leather plays in counterbalancing the dramatic trend of premature deindustrialisation in developing countries. Most developing nations are becoming service economies without having had a proper experience of industrialisation. Whatever the many reasons for this be it China’s entry into global value chains, governmental failure to kick-start manufacturing preferring to stay with raw commodity exports, or technological advances reducing entry level jobs, the leather industry remains an excellent opportunity to provide large numbers of jobs young economies desperately need. Every piece of leather a tanner makes creates useful jobs in the production of leather products: workers can learn useful skills, build families, and have real opportunities to develop worthwhile careers.

The leather industry can develop quality employment in the developed world
The leather industry has famously helped do this in places such as South Korea, Taiwan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China and can do the same for Africa. And with the tanning world having largely rebalanced in the 20th century the leather industry can play its part globally while continuing to develop quality employment in the developed world. But as an industry we must ensure the Brundtland sustainability expectation that environmental and worker safety issues are properly managed. Sustainability is more than the circular economy.
Many of the world’s biggest problems clearly arise where there is major unemployment of those aged 15-30. Unemployment and poverty provide the fodder for war lords and terrorists; and this all ends up driving migration where people unwillingly leave their countries to arrive in places where others are not so willing to welcome them.
Sustainable leather not only helps fight against climate change and biodiversity loss, it leads in providing the opportunity to offer essential types of stable employment needed to reduce poverty and build societies: everywhere.

Mike Redwood
July 5, 2021