The pull between modern marketing and traditional approaches is one which has caught the leather industry, with too many of our leaders wanting to stick with the standard communications methods they understand (albeit rarely used). Now that the main routes to consumers are often invisible to older generations, they are struggling.

That has been one part of our problem in failing to persuade key generations and influencers that leather is both a great material and a vital one for sustainability. The other is that we were late to join the exercise and left competitive materials many decades to monopolise a majority share of voice and adjust their approach to make maximum impact where it matters. This allowed an unhealthy, informal alliance to grow between some material producers and well-funded voluble pressure groups for whom success outbids integrity.

So, at a critical moment, the leather industry is being assailed on all sides and losing market share even in unexpected sectors. With COP-26 less than 100 days away, there is a further worry that irrevocable decisions will be made on diets, livestock and materials that could make matters worse over the long term. Given that many of the attacks on leather are based on bad science, false narratives, abuse of nomenclature and greenwash by some long-standing customers, the industry is right to be upset.

Stay calm

The danger of showing anger in marketing is that it does not work. Second, it soon loses sight of the facts. Generally speaking, the leather industry can be proud of its ethical approach to business. As environmental issues and CSR came to the fore, honesty and transparency became increasingly important and most leather industry leaders have demonstrated this in published environmental reports going back to the 1990s and, since then, have made sizeable investments to fund routine and often large advances in all areas.

With the battle over chrome tanning within the industry in the 1990s and 2000s, the industry did slide into high levels of greenwash; making inaccurate statements about chromium chemistry and throwing terms like “natural”, “organic”, “sustainable”, “heavy metal” and “toxic” around like confetti as one tannery fought against another. This had largely subsided by about 2010 and claims have been much more considered lately.

Leather’s problem has been that as our customers look for increased margins, and for greater price stability, it is they who are sliding into greenwash. Many claims for alternate materials suggesting environmental superiority appear to have scant foundations other than pandering to what they see as some consumer sentiment.

Fighting back is difficult, but anger and outright attacks on the new range of bio-based materials is not the answer. Defence in general is not a wise working marketing strategy by comparison with relentlessly pursuing the positives, and leather has more wonderful positives than any other material in the huge range of sectors where leather is used.

Leather is needed for the future

Leather is, after all, a foundation material for modern society and now looks as though it is needed to help transition the world into a better, more secure and more biodiverse future. So, it is better to find alternate ways to vent frustration against injustice than abusing marketing techniques to complain.

For example, the abuse of the term “leather” is best dealt with legally with wide circulation of positive outcomes. We have a few countries with good legislation but little or no information on its successful application. Other countries have trade description legislation and consumer advertising rules that have been effectively used by consumers but, again, we hear little about them. Competitors would be nervous about using terminology that previous legal successes have shown results in exclusion from important markets.

Clear emphasis of the circular underpinnings of the fundamental existence of leather in terms of its origins, ease of maintenance, repair of leather items and exceptional longevity in its first circle makes a better story. It is unique in the sphere of materials and positive promotion of this amazing story should be at the heart of a united industry campaign.

Mike Redwood

3 August, 2021

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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