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As tanneries steadily upgraded their wet ends last century, introducing larger drums with mechanical handling of hides and controlled additions of chemicals and water, along with modernised set ups for fleshing and splitting, the labour content dropped considerably. I first recognised this when given charge of a brand-new tannery in El Salvador in the 1970s, and looking at the costings we recognised how the labour element changed as you moved through the tannery.
Processing to wet blue in a modern tannery does not require many staff, but a larger number of employees take the same hides through to crust and in finishing these same hides a big jump in staff numbers is needed to process the leather. We can argue about precise numbers as methodologies and machinery evolve, but in reality it is the huge jump between the total tannery numbers and what happens with the leather afterwards that counts. Indeed, it is that employment primarily that has interested Korea, China, India and many others to get into the leather industry in the last fifty years and is exciting Ethiopia at the moment.
This aspect was raised at the second big leather industry dinner in London last week when around 100 invited guests attended from across the supply chain. The Chairman of Leather UK, Mr James Lang, explained that membership had jumped from 29 to 78 and that the UK leather industry has a turnover of £210 million (US$267 million), of which 83% is exported, and it employs 1,800 people. “The UK leather industry is one of the most vibrant, technically-advanced and sustainable of any country in the world and we should be justly proud of that”, he said.
The uplift in membership is not because there has been a sudden rush of new tanneries being built in the UK, but rather the newly renamed organisation has very sensibly begun to spread its net wider over the leather network. I remember a few years ago when doing a study for the English town of Northampton, which has a history of many centuries of producing leather and footwear, with a little brainstorming over a couple of days we named over 100 local businesses. So there is plenty to go at. While some of these are involved in trade specific organisations, there is wisdom in them re-examining their connections and harmonising over the common ground. In some instances, as with the Real Sheepskin Association, fully joining Leather UK makes sound sense.
The French leather industry demonstrate a good example of some of the benefits. When I was asked some years ago to do a presentation for the excellent A Future for European Leather, Objective 2025 initiative, I used their 2014 data to show a tannery has a huge multiplier in terms of economic and human value as the leather moves towards the consumer. From the French leather association I found out that they had 44 tanneries with 1560 employees involved, but that there were more than a hundred footwear companies employing nearly 6,000 people, generating a turnover of around €1 billion. On top of that, France had a leather goods sector with more than 1,000 companies representing 20,000 employees and a total turnover of €2.6 billion, plus around 15 French glove making plants maintaining the increasingly rare skills involved in producing fine leather dress gloves. When they added it all together and put in some specific retail figures, they calculated that they had 8000 businesses, with 70000 employees turning over €15 billion, of which over half was exported.
As in many areas of modern statistics, it is not exactly clear how this data is compiled. For both France and the UK there are some major brands such as Clarks in the UK and LV in France who are hugely significant in leather but apparently missing (France’s current figures are now reported as being much larger). Nevertheless, the French were still able, based on the numbers calculated for 2014, to persuade the Minister for Industry to attend their Parisian Trade Show (before it was bought by Premier Vision) and talk at some length with a gathering of French Leather Industry leaders. 70,000 employees and €15 billion gets attention.
So the numbers alone have great value. I accept that neither the French, nor the British are vertically integrated industries. France has a very vibrant global trade in all stages, and in the UK the number of tanneries has grown too small. Yet, they both roughly represent the benefit that is gained from every square foot produced, and in the UK, a long term move to have a much more balanced leather economy with fewer raw hides and skins leaving the country and more finished products using them makes economic and environmental sense. Clarks used to buy all its leather in the UK, and Mulberry would surely prefer to. It is a dream worth having.
May 12, 2019
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