It appears these days that innovation has been overwhelmed by disruption in the popular language of jet-setting business speak. This is understandable in the way that the big Internet companies have swept through industry after industry and upset the traditional ways of doing business. On top of this, in the leather industry, we have had a new century that has so far been dominated by compliance. First to chemical standards such as the EU REACH programme and then to better regulated environmental and corporate social responsibility regimes.

As a result, the increasing development and launch of new products (often category killers) that we saw in the leather industry in the twentieth century, seems now to have slowed to a trickle. I accept that often the top tanners work on joint development with customers to produce tailored, exclusive leathers but it is hard to understand why they never get a mention when the features and benefits of the final product gets taken to market.

Will China might be the new innovation hub?

The sad truth seems to be that some of top tanners have slowed the pace of innovation, and if so it needs to change. When it does it increasingly looks as though the creative hub that emerges will be in China. For a long time, China has followed the development route of Japan and other Asian countries, best described as “copy and improve”; it now looks ready to move on.  China is steadily catching the U.S. and other leading nations in terms of GDP, and Research and Development as a percentage of GDP.

For some time, many of the technical articles in the 100-year-old Journal of the Society of Leather Technologists and Chemists (JSLTC) have been Chinese. They have steadily improved with time and at the recent SLTC annual conference one of the more interesting papers was based entirely on a Chinese approach to liming and tanning. This can be considered as something to be expected, given the speed with which the Chinese leather industry has grown. Yet the tanning side has not been captured by China to anything like the extent of footwear and leather goods, and there are major concentrations of top tanneries, chemical and machinery companies still in Europe, Brazil and elsewhere. They should not leave a void.

Given that every week we see competitive offerings to fill the leather space, our customers must be wondering when they are going to get something really new from their tanneries once again? Where is that “spirit of the 80s”?

Dr Mike Redwood

May 1, 2018

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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