The growing capacity for leather production in China is a major concern for tanners in the rest of the world. This was made particularly clear at the recent Upholstery Leather Conference in Verona. Speaker after speaker expressed fears of what would happen to the European leather industry in the wake of China’s success.

Bernardo Finco of the Vicenza tanning association posed the question: ‘Will they expand sufficiently to mop up all the raw materials supplies on the market?’ Another Italian presenter referred to a leather report which stated that Italy was dead.

And many people in the industry are conjecturing that in five years time, only 50% of Italian tanners will still be operating.

There was an interesting cross current in the questions and answers since one of the speakers was Zhu Kasen, the most successful tanner in China. He handled the situation with tact and humour and said he had quite a different view of China from that being expressed at the conference by others.

He referred to the conviction of many Europeans that China will only want them for as long as they have the superior technology but would discard them when they were ready to be self sufficient. Zhu Kasen said that he had developed a new technology which made it possible to make four splits from one hide and laughingly suggested that may be there would be occasions when the west stole ideas from China.

Song Xian Wen, who acted as his translator, told delegates:

‘We are not the enemy’ and the response to this was: ‘I do not see China as bad and us as good, but I want the Italian leather industry to survive and to do this we have to sit around the table with China.’

At the recent annual meeting of the International Council of Tanners, in Hong Kong, which Song also attended, she said that the Chinese government is actively promoting the import of wet-blue hides in order to lessen the burden on the environment of processing from the raw.

China simply does not have the raw resources to fuel the growth of their leather industry without heavy reliance on imports. To begin with they concentrated on raw hides but if increasingly they are moving to wet-blue, this will have an enormous effect on the pattern of world trading.

Currently they import a lot of finished upholstery leather but this could obviously change radically when they have the capacity to finish it themselves. Most of the upholstery leather imported from China comes from South Korea, Brazil and Italy.

According to Zhu Kasen, his tannery’s leather had already been accepted by ten car brands and they were hoping to receive Audi approval this year. And this at a time when China has already launched its own 100% Chinese owned car. The market is vast. The possibilities are endless.

Zhu named a number of cars currently being assembled in China which often utilise 100% of leather in the interior, including models from Audi, VW, Buick, Mercedes Benz, Honda and BMW. And it is not just Chinese tanners who are likely to benefit. Chai Watana in Thailand are reported as awaiting a massive order for automotive upholstery leather from Japanese car assemblers in China.

The continuous and rapid increase in the national income has promoted many more Chinese citizens to the ranks of the middle class along with greater demand for housing and, thus, furniture. Zhu said it took Kasen two weeks to tan the leather, two weeks to build the frame of a sofa and two weeks to upholster it making a six-week delivery no problem. He said 8-10 weeks was being quoted in Italy for the leather alone.

Shelagh Davy