When Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, was quoted saying that he wished more people “knew the value of leather” over plastic in the circular economy, an immediate thought came to mind. Only three weeks before, he and Princess Anne spent a remarkably relaxed time taking tea with UK tanner Reg Hankey, CEO of Pittards.
The meeting was to recognise the first students to graduate from courses run by The Prince’s Foundation with accreditation from the City & Guilds, of which Princess Anne is President. Of at least equal importance was the naming of Reg Hankey as a Fellow of the City & Guilds London Institute. This major award is in recognition of his embodiment of the organisation’s core values of leadership, imagination and integrity and having impacted his industry.
Reg Hankey has shown remarkable support for this training organisation, which helps young people learn skills, achieve qualifications and find apprenticeships. It has been exceedingly important work and, in the leather industry, we must acknowledge and appreciate such dedication and not leave it only to our local and national community organisations to do so.
Seeing through greenwash
Equally, we should recognise that such activities also bring companies into the sights of influential people. Throughout the Prince’s working life, he and his sister have visited a variety of tanneries and leather using businesses, as well as farms. After many such meetings over the years, and discussions he has held with industry leaders, he is well placed to see through the greenwash.
When the industry was larger, and held its own trade fairs, the Royal Family often came to open them. In recent COP26 related presentations, the Scottish Leather Group has suggested the moment that catalysed their shift to circular thinking was the decision to self-fund their thermal energy plant, a Biomass Pyrolysis Process that was leading edge technology at the time. So, it is no surprise that we find the Princess Royal was the guest of honour at the opening.
Royal seal of approval
Individual companies around the world can do a great deal like this and many do. Little can match the success of Royal Smit & Zoon, who had the Royal predicate granted by King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands on their 200th anniversary earlier this year. This was no tick box exercise but given after the company was fully researched and understood; and visited by members of the Royal Family in the Netherlands.
Be it Monarchs, Presidents, Prime Ministers or other key individuals, letting them have the opportunity to visit plants for opening events or prize-giving is more than a clever public relations event, or a moral boost to employees – important though both are – but an opportunity to show and explain the workings of the leather industry in a way that provides context and, like one thoughtful Prince, to encourage statements such as how much better than “plastic or ‘strange spun’ synthetic materials” are natural materials that demonstrate circular credentials and natural origins in regenerative farming.
Given the importance of physical meetings to make such messages easier to comprehend, we should not forget to restart tannery open days, to let families and communities understand the process of leather making, as soon as Covid-19 permits. People of all ages can become engaged, especially if they know the plant has pertinent postings on relevant social media.
Finally, the strengthening of the industry around the world through the re-emergence of a bigger and stronger International Council of Tanners’, the merger of hides and leather associations in the U.S. and the UK decision to bring even small leather goods businesses under their umbrella means they are much more likely to be able to catch the attention of elected officials and the press. An exercise France achieved successfully nearly a decade ago.
The leather industry clearly does a lot of very clever things and has taken big strides in the past few years. Having made the COP26 statement, let us ensure that we keep the forward momentum and recognise how small things build success.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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