In fact 72% of the supply chain executives surveyed admitted that they knew very little about the early stages of their supply chains. “Zero visibility” beyond the second tier was the term used. Only 11% said they had visibility along the whole supply chain. The policy increasingly being seen is “don’t ask, don’t tell’.

To a tanner this is all very alien. The origin of every hide and skin is important. The processing any semi-processed material a tanner buys has to be compatible with the final leather it has been brought for. There is no room for ignoring where hides, skins and semi-processed leather originate.

At the retail level things are not so simple. With a few noticeable exceptions buyers of leather products get put into place as part of an on the job learning process, and just as soon as they have got any knowledge they get promoted to an entirely unrelated category. Technical and environmental expertise too frequently involves recent graduates from textiles or other disciplines without any leather training. Not necessarily bad appointments but good people who need to be given some leather training and access to knowledgeable leather people.

Without such specialist leather and tannery knowledge when they look at a tannery or a piece of leather they can miss major issues, and cannot deduce the reality from the facade they are sometimes shown.

This situation is worsened by reduced travel budgets. So the whole effect is that we come down to systems, audits and paperwork. That is to say it comes down to trust. Not very handy if they’re really has been a big growth in corruption and incompetence.

Great systems still need the formidable buyer

We do need systems. It is important to measure where you stand and to be able to check that against previous years and industry standards. But more than anything in our industry we need to get back to that mix of explicit and tacit knowledge that made for the legendary buyers. So respected you could not cheat them. You feared them. They knew their leathers. They understood quality. Sometimes they appeared irrational but when as a tanner you were ready to object to your leather being rejected you looked harder and you saw a determination to retain brand integrity. They could visit a tannery and by observation could identify if the effluent plant could do what was being promised; could see far more than they were shown and still demand to see more.

Tanneries enjoy building strong relationships with legendary, knowledgeable and formidable buyers. They are a huge strength to in the supply chain, but very few remain; almost none in the retail sector. If as an industry we are to protect ourselves against issues of child labour, improper processing methods, cheating on waste management then we need more of these skills in the supply chain. De-skilling and replacement by systems is no answer. 

Mike Redwood

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood