In the six years that I have been annoying you, while stepping on the toes of some with my views about the leather trade in Limeblast, I have touched on a number of subjects. Some are ‘new’, others come back from time to time when I get additional ideas or when I get new input from one corner or another.

Luckily not many of my friends have turned into enemies and (until now) only one has considered it more convenient to call in the assistance of his lawyers rather than resort to a constructive dialogue. So part of this Limeblast is based on my exchange of views and opinions with others, amongst whom is the secretary general of Cotance, an organisation which in my view is the only really active lobbyist for our industry. We don’t always see eye to eye, but in general our ideas coincide and when they don’t, never mind, it is not the end of the world.

At or around the time of the last Lineapelle, Italian sole leather tanners called for a common approach by colleagues worldwide to discuss the problems that the (Italian) sole leather tanners are facing due to competition from Mexico. This is a rather naive approach, because the Italians out-competed other European (sole) leather tanners some 10-20 years ago, most of whom were faced with only one choice and that was to halt production. I don’t think that the Italians would have been prepared to play Santa Claus when they were top dog.

Now, due to a myriad of reasons and conditions, it is the Italian (sole) leather industry, like many other industries related and unrelated to the leather industry, that is facing pressure from their competitors. But business is business and the Mexicans are more than happy, financially and commercially, and hence have made it clear that there is nothing to talk about.

They are dollar orientated and don’t suffer from the strength of the euro, which is now almost double the rate of three years ago. On the contrary, they thrive on it.

Today Europe is experiencing problems selling because the euro is strong with an exchange rate of 1.34, whereas dollar orientated nations had great problems in the past selling to Europe when the euro was traded at 75 US cents.

It is like the Euro tourist now going to the USA because it is cheap, when four years ago Americans were coming to Europe because we were cheap for them, and all because of the exchange rate.

In addition, Mexico has the benefit of cheap labour and thus can be competitive and each time the euro increases they have an extra windfall. So why should they talk when, at least at the moment, they are on the top of the sole leather world?

People forget that collective issues, such as these, should be addressed when there are advantages and disadvantages for all players and not when it suits one more than the other. It is self-defeating to be selfish when you face serious trade problems. The leather industry has always failed to address collective issues efficiently and, unfortunately, opportunism and individualism have prevailed. Limeblast has tried to make a contribution by putting issues on the table for discussion.

Without collective dialogue, how can we expect to get answers to important questions such as the formation of a new global organisation (renewing the ICT structures and statutes for better global sectorial governance), a new international contract (a collaborative revision involving the ICT, ICHSLTA and UNIC for a better supply-chain partnership integrating updated legal and societal requirements – see Limeblast January 2004), and a new global trade deal (free and fair trade rules at WTO level for sharing resources and markets in a competitive environment under equal or comparable environmental and social conditions – see Limeblast July 2003).

The world is changing rapidly and the leather trade is obliged to follow because old concepts are no longer valid. Sticking to the old concepts generates unfair competition and situations which get out of hand such as the one faced by Italian sole leather tanners and which others have faced before them.

All potential problems are generally known about a long time before they start to pose real difficulties but nobody is willing to stick out his neck and address them, because it is not in the interest of one or the other. The collective issue in the leather industry has always been subservient to the individual interests and we are paying the price now. In short the leather industry is and appears to remain hostage to its own apathy.

The main concern is notably the trade problem. Nobody is happy, everybody is complaining about (high) tariffs, technical barriers, dumping, social and environmental problems, counterfeiting and so on.

But in the end who cares? Who makes a step forward and sticks out his neck to do something about it? I haven’t heard or seen anything constructive coming out of ICT or other associations. Have you?

It is unbelievable that, apart from Cotance, nobody has proposed or addressed publicly a global concept for framing the international trade in raw hides and skins, wet-blue, crust and leather for the current WTO round. In spite of some Cotance members being unhappy and leaving or threatening to withdraw from the organisation, it appears that Cotance is our only mouthpiece, while others prefer to hide behind the actions of their governments and play sniper from free-rider positions instead of having an open confrontation.

Why are people afraid to state their viewpoint? What is wrong in stating an honest opinion? Right or wrong, views can and must be discussed in a civilised way. Through open dialogue they should contribute to form an acceptable work base and solution.

Everything is unfortunately and regrettably reduced to (economic) power and politics and dialogue in its real sense becomes secondary. That’s how misunderstandings arise. Why can’t we forget individualism, ego and personal benefits, whatever the form, and get things moving for the whole industry. It is difficult but not impossible.

All we need are the right people to represent us, who have a vision, who are prepared to take an objective view of the problems and their solutions without being handcuffed to personal, company or national interests. That is a tall order, but with the right persons it could be done.

So the Ponte a Egola sole leather tanners should maybe change their agenda and pursue a formula favourable for the whole industry rather than serve their own doorstep. And, maybe, the Mexicans should participate in a round of talks because the time may come when they too find themselves in the same position, ten years down the line, as their Italian competitors are experiencing at the moment. They might be happy when the Chinese industrialists accept the need to discuss their inevitable problems in 2015.

Perhaps the whole issue should be incorporated now, and not in 2015, in a wider spectrum at, for instance ICT level, but then ICT should reinvent itself first in order to be efficient and credible.

Sam Setter