Over the past 20 years, there have been a number of “initiatives” as new and old organisations try to help the leather industry adapt to the difficult realities of the 21st century.

Having evolved through the time of the ancient Romans, the medieval period of guilds, the demands of the Industrial Revolution and the technical advances of the 20th century, it’s vital for our industry to understand that the role of leather, consumer attitudes and the entire context in which we work is quite transformed from even the last century.

The world has become an urban place, the landscape has been transformed by industry and the relentless drive for efficiency impacting agriculture, as well as biodiversity and climate. Leather was always needed as a strategic material, vital for fighting wars and for running industrial machinery.

Now, it is required to help make the world more sustainable, recover lost biodiversity and, through its biophilic nature, to quietly aid and reduce the stress in society.

Yet these benefits, which are obvious to tanners, are not well understood in society as a whole. Leather is losing market share not because raw material supply cannot match demand but because other materials are taking its place, leading to raw materials being disposed of unused on a scale not seen before.

I support trade bodies, despite the complaints of some about expensive lunches in capital cities far distant from any leather production. My first meeting of the International Council of Tanners’ (ICT) was in Argentina in the 1970s and it was large and active with wide-ranging discussions in and out of the sessions.

When the ICT split in the 90s after arguing about protectionism, I believe that, whatever the rights and wrongs, it lost some of its relevance. A very well-intentioned International Leather Forum in Paris in 2007 tried to stitch matters together but in hindsight probably over-bureaucratised matters.

During this period, and especially in the last few years, national bodies such as those in Brazil, China, France, the U.S. and Italy have been transformed and the industry has found clarity in defining its challenges and opportunities. Both are large and critical and demand a more united and coordinated global approach; something we have written a lot about as an aspiration. It has become a necessity.

PrimeAsia CEO Jon Clark said in the ILM 2021 year-end podcast that there is real evidence that the industry’s science-based information is now cutting through to buyers and journalists and starting to make an impact. This offers a foundation around which to unite a drive forward.

Our leather industry leadership has been refreshed over recent years, with many younger executives who have been instrumental in working towards industry harmony, if not total unity. We can have confidence that the new leadership blend has the skills to be both trusted and innovative in tackling such big challenges.

A coordinated effort

The coordinated work done by the industry, in which the ICT was a leader, to prepare a leather manifesto ahead of COP26 was a good example of how such coordination, even at short notice, can be truly valuable. Let us consider this further and get our heads together before and during Dubai about how to pull this coordination together.

Organisations like the fully voluntary Leather Naturally exist to help the industry fill a global communications and education gap stretching beyond national bodies which must prioritise their own members’ needs. Leather Naturally now has a wide range of educational materials available, such as the first-rate Leather Naturally Guide to Leather Making, which anyone can freely download and utilise in training and promotion.

Currently, a funding round for the continuation of the successful Metcha campaign is underway. What an industry transformation it would be if the ICT could get involved and lead the funding and work with the campaign on behalf of the global industry. Small contributions from thousands of tanners, and from traders, agents and machinery suppliers, would hugely outstrip the amounts Leather Naturally can gather from their small caucus of dedicated industry supporters, and together they could establish something to match the admired programmes of other natural materials and counter that of new competition which is frequently and deliberately misleading.

The grim events and fracturing world we see around us are alien to the leather industry, which has always balanced global trade with strong local industries. Most of us have made good friends in all parts of the world because of the leather industry. Keeping the leather world open, talking and working together could be an inspirational way to lead the world on the return to stability while managing our own very global issues and opportunities. 

Mike Redwood


Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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