A transformation in thinking and actionIn 1994 I was asked by the then Secretary, Robert Sykes, to give a talk to the International Council of […]

Aug 29, 2017
Posted in: , Markets

In 1994 I was asked by the then Secretary, Robert Sykes, to give a talk to the International Council of Tanners (ICT in Hong Kong on the subject of “Branding Leather”. It was a first for me and a new departure for them to consider such a risky subject. I took a sizeable audience through a discussion on branding and its applicability in the leather industry in terms of generic approaches to support leather as a whole. My conclusion was that the industry as I had observed it through my career until then was too fragmented – by raw material type, end use and geography – and too dominated by rather small minded introverted family businesses to ever unite and achieve a consistent and coherent long term “brand leather” programme.

For the next fifteen years this was absolutely proven as the sectors increasingly considered their special areas to be so unique as to be incompatible with others, and our major institutions grew increasingly dysfunctional so that the numbers attending the ICT could have effectively met round one of the circular tables in Starbucks.

Yet today the industry feels quite different. The team at Leather Naturally is in the process of sending out messages that not only support the rationale for such campaigns, but start to look at content and timetables. Somehow a diverse group of stakeholders from across the world – not one country, not one sector – but all dependent on and committed to leather have recognised a common cause and been able to come together to see how their combined activity can support leather as a key material for society today and in the future.

This is an exceptional transformation for an industry in two decades. We have seen that the role of marketing as something more than producing brochures and trade stands has and become more understood throughout an industry that used to think all they had to do was make good product. Some companies have started to put marketing and innovation at the core of their approach to business, so that the great product they make is not only a fine piece of leather but one made with customer needs and expectations in mind. And a small number of trade associations have moved towards a much more consumer facing view of their role, and one or two have even managed to move their web sites beyond the dreaded black and red and the use of the traditional leathermark as the only tool to present a piece of leather to the consumer. The ICT is a large growing body once again as will be seen at the market oriented World Leather Congress being held this autumn in Shanghai.

Designers should make their material choice based on true facts

In the past this lack of unity as each country and sector fought for itself meant that money spent on promoting leather in one area had zero spill over into others, and there was no synergy. If the industry can come together even to a small degree the impact could be significant. With Leather

Naturally as the powerful cross-country and cross-functional leader real change becomes likely and it looks as though it has already been a catalyst for some of the changes being seen, with much more to come. Leather Naturally is built up of global supporters located throughout the leather industry including tanneries, chemical companies and leather industry organisations. All these supporter’s care about the communication of true facts about leather. Their objective is that designers, leather goods creators and consumers should make their own choice as to whether to use leather or alternative materials based on these true facts.

The unity that we began to see in the leather industry around 2010 was a reaction to renewed threats from animal rights and other organisations and from purveyors of plastic substitutes who were increasingly using false narratives to attack the integrity of leather. They were succeeding at getting through to the consumer with their blend of incorrect facts, innuendo and twisted truth. The more we looked at defending leather in the face of these attacks the more obvious it was that leather should not be on the defensive but positively promoted as a good material. With its natural origins, its longevity in use and the reparability of articles made from it leather is many times better than any fossil fuel dependent plastic. Even chrome leather, which has been vilified because of the carcinogenic nature of the never used chrome six valency form which was found not to be as bad as suggested. If chrome six were to get into shoes the consumer would need to eat at least two pairs before harm would be done – while other forms of contact are harmless.

Additional attacks on leather have come from what might be called “opportunistic labelling” when other materials like fabrics made of wine skins and mushrooms start calling themselves “mushroom leather” and the like. Pretending they have leather properties by using our name. The Brazilian and the Germans have been the best at fighting this, and recently the Italian industry has had a success in stopping the use of the term “wine leather”. It is long overdue but we see the start of an industry fighting together.

So Leather Naturally will continue supporting a balanced and transparent view of the leather industry and promoting leather as a beautiful sustainable material. We encourage others to join us.

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