Tanners do not get enough for their leatherIt’s fundamental to avoid driving leather into a commodity price bracket

Mar 12, 2018
Posted in: , Sustainability
Mike Iceland
Mike Iceland

A colleague of mine, talking to an audience of young tanners the other day, quietly said. “The problem is, tanners do not get a high enough price for their leathers.”
As this discussion progressed another colleague quietly intervened to remind us that we need to remember that if we raise prices sales will drop. Is the leather industry prepared for that?
One word immediately came to mind – Veblen. Thorstein Veblen was an American sociologist and economist who wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899. From this came the term “Veblen good”.
“Veblen goods” are those for whom demand rises as they become more expensive. This was because these goods reflect greater status.

Tanners have become besotted with luxury
Tanners have become somewhat besotted with luxury since increased wealth, the rise of the middle class worldwide and the reduction in the cost of manufacture resulting from globalisation has made many luxury goods widely accessible.
So much so that many traditional areas for high volume became classed as “accessible luxuries”. Yet we are being reminded today that buying luxury goods for status is a transient activity occurring while consumers go through a certain stage: and the high status item becomes limited in value if everyone owns it. More fundamental to buying leather is another reason for the Veblen effect: many consumers perceive more expensive goods as better quality, and so they buy more of that category. Classing luxury as something scarce or unique while defining items that are of value owing to their design, construction or materials as premium articles you get a better picture for the 21st century. A premium leather product means it is made of leather that is of very high quality. We must decide what “high quality” means for different consumer groups and end uses. To some it may mean that the skin is from a reptile or an ostrich as that is perceived as superior, but according to our approach they are more exclusive so better placed in luxury. For premium leather are looking for inherent qualities in regular leather made from bovine hides, sheep and goatskins that along with the design and the manufacture of the finished article create a degree of excellence that the consumer can perceive. We need to work out some distinguishing attributes.
Until now the better tanners have mostly tried to avoid driving leather into a commodity price bracket by making it look like plastic, with heavy coatings of finish intended to cover each and every imperfection or blemish on the surface. After many centuries of conceding end uses to alternate materials – such as metals, pottery, paper, textiles and lately plastics – leather has survived for two reasons.  Its beauty, certainly, measured in such elements as look and touch, but also its performance, which is usually related to its intended end use.
A garment leather is entirely different from a footwear sole leather. A golf glove leather has little relation to a traditional bridle leather. Looking at the huge differences between all these types of leather, a consequence of the mix of raw material choice mixed with physical and chemical treatment we can see that we already have a huge variety of ways of working with our raw material. Yet this is the 21st century.
We are in an age of advanced biotechnology, of computerisation and advancing technology. Surely for leather this can mean more than replacing a few inorganic chemicals with enzymes. It is surely time for us to look much deeper, into the detail of the structure of leather, and to start work more fundamentally with the structural biology. The architecture and chemistry of the raw material we use is one all our competitors try to emulate. Its strength, its flexibility, its moisture management, health giving, its ability to shape itself to the foot and its exceptional durability are no more than the starting point for a great leather. No synthetic can match the patina available with some leathers, how do we build on it to make it more of a unique and exceptional feature? This is the moment to bring together modern technology and unite it with higher expectations of younger consumers, and add some new components to make a series of performance offers perfectly suited to the modern end uses to which leather is put. Certainly we will continue to require the fine classical leathers that sit in the “traditional” and “craftsmanship” slots but leather is a material that has never stood still, has never become “old”.  Leather is being outplayed by plastic, but the last thing the world can afford is more plastic, so leather is needed to fill the space of the new modern material.
If we at Leather Naturally are to defend and promote leather effectively we need to be able to create a narrative of relevance, which is best built on a timeless material which can routinely reinvent itself for the modern world.


by Mike Redwood, spokesman of Leather Naturally!
Visiting Professor of the Institute for Creative Leather Technology, University of Northhampton

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