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Mike Redwood discusses the problem of endlessly chasing growth across industries, and how the leather industry can embrace slow growth for success.
In a weekend newspaper, the head of the UK website The Car Expert said: “The car industry is utterly reliant on people buying cars they don’t need with money they don’t have.”
Runaway overconsumption has been the story of the last few decades, filling up methane-spewing landfill sites and relentlessly depleting resources. Feeding the planet would not be a problem if we stopped wasting so much food at every step in the supply line, from the failure to harvest to throwing it away at the store or household.
Meanwhile, a significant part of the fashion sustainability problem lies in making too much, persuading consumers to buy it with bargain prices, overloading closets and throwing away items made to withstand no more than one or two washes.
Indeed, even a glance in the direction of this overconsumption should make us pause and take a deep breath, especially on days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday: retail festivals of frenzied planetary self-indulgence.
Relentlessly chasing growth
In general, we consider growth to be good. It increases wealth and pulls people out of poverty, generally raising standards of living; but even back in ancient Greek times, they carved into the Delphi Temple of Apollo the message that a bit of moderation would be wise. Relentlessly chasing growth without thought has risks.
The leather industry knows about slow growth. No one keeps farmed livestock for leather: the industry size relates to the demand for meat, milk and cheese. Mostly over the past 50 years, annual growth for tanners has been restricted to about 1-1.5% and tanners have worked hard to ensure no resources have been lost, although a maturing society has now excluded raw materials such as dogskins to restrict the industry essentially to only bovine, ovine, caprine and porcine origins.
Even when I was early in my career, the Booth Group were thinking about potential raw material shortages and helping to design machinery for abattoirs to remove at least a patch of raw skin from pigs, and technical director Jim Jackman spent a lot of time trying to see if any volume leathers might be drummed up with the skins from chicken legs.
With synthetics not working well, the arrival of athletic footwear helped by making better use of splits, but then the UN and the World Bank supported the growth of tanning in newer nations, from where older economies had been importing raw material. Soon, closures were not running fast enough to balance the new openings. For most of the 1980s, there was steady talk of margins in tanneries being constrained by global industry overcapacity, reaching proportions as high as 140%, though numbers were confused somewhat by growth in wet-blue trade.
In the 1990s, a new wave of globalisation changed the situation led by a big uptake of polyester and other polymers made from coal and oil. This allowed for the cheap production of huge volumes of articles and created the trend towards lower-quality garments.
Making disposable articles such as nappies and cups may have made life easier for some but deliberately developing products that are not meant to last to force consumers to buy replacement products is clearly a step too far. Built-in obsolescence might have been a fun topic many years ago, but the world today is in a serious place.
Whether or not brands and producers thought through what they were doing the discovery of microplastic pollution and other harmful emissions related to the use of plastics has helped change the dialogue. Meanwhile, the tanning industry has been made smaller as quite large numbers of hides in the U.S. and elsewhere, and sheepskins in many parts of the world are not getting into the leather chain after being displaced by these cheaper fossil fuel-based materials.
We have learned a valuable lesson
So, we can see that the tanning industry needs to return to growth by working to regain access to all the lost supplies of hides and skins. I cannot remember the number of times I have been told that generically marketing leather would be a waste of time because all our raw material was tanned, so marketing would only upset the pricing structure. But now we must fight to get back to as near 100% utilisation as possible and accept that we have learned a valuable lesson.
While that would re-establish our 1% level of growth, now is the time to be more ambitious. We know our markets and consumers. We understand the sort of materials needed for a wide variety of end uses. We can work our way through collagen matrixes and non-woven structures, so let us work with some of the better new materials that are being introduced and help them displace the fossil fuel dependency that has ruined our industry, the fashion industry and so much else in our lives.
This is a route to major growth with full integrity. Plastic was a wonderful invention but, as the Delphic oracle said, it needs to be used in moderation and only in the right places. And substituting leather is not one of them.
For sustainability, planetary security and diversity, tanners should reclaim their market and be willing to help others share it where it naturally fits and start to grow responsibly.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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