The UKLF held their first dinner under their new name at the impressive Leathersellers Hall in the City of London on June 8. Jonathan Muirhead, the new president, said he delighted to see so many representatives of the industry and their guests. ‘This dinner is the first which has been held under our organisation’s new name, UK Leather Federation. UKLF is a direct descendant of the British Leather Federation whose inaugural meeting was held in 1908 in this same place.’

He thanked the Worshipful Company of Leathersellers once again for the use of their magnificent hall and also for the invaluable and generous assistance given to encourage research and development, further education and trade promotion within our industry. He also referred to the continuation of the company’s support of the UK leather industry reception in Hong Kong. ‘This year the reception was attended by guests from over 20 different countries including Ethiopia. In that regard it is with particular pleasure that we welcome His Excellency, the Ambassador of Ethiopia to our dinner this evening.’

He went on: ‘This hall is almost our spiritual home and I am delighted that the Leathersellers Company has offered to make it available to us in 2008 when our Federation shall celebrate its centenary.

‘As all good organisations should have, there is now a succession plan and I am delighted that David Bailey, someone who has been in our industry at least as long as I have, has agreed to be my vice president. David is highly respected within the industry and will succeed me as president in January next year. I wish him well. I am delighted that Mike Dodd of Pittards has also joined the board of UKLF and will succeed David in due course. Organisations such as this of course do not survive without its full time staff and in that regard I must take this opportunity to thank Paul Pearson, our director, for his invaluable support and guidance during my time in office.

‘UK Leather Federation was re-established in September last year as an entirely separate organisation from the BLC Leather Technology Centre. The Federation’s primary role is to represent and promote the interests of the UK leather producing industry and also all those who support, supply or use the output of the UK leather industry in their activities.

‘The UK leather making industry currently has an annual turnover of about £300 million, has a workforce of about 2,500 people and exports around 70% of the leather produced. Despite the increasingly competitive nature of international trade in the sector, with global shifts to South East Asia, Indian sub continent and South America, the UK industry continues to record a positive trade balance, which for the last complete year available, was £45 million. If trade in raw hides and skins is included the positive balance is £106 million.

‘At our last industry dinner held in 2004, our guest speaker Owen Paterson MP, now Shadow Minister of State for Transport and who is one of our top table guests this evening, implored us to make full use of our elected representatives, locally, nationally and in Europe. UK Leather Federation will be increasing its lobby activities in future but, once again, I appeal to each member firm to do likewise. All of us wish to see a thriving UK and European leather industry and against all the odds this is achievable. Ours is a small industry so our voice must endeavour to rise above others and be heard.

‘The current lobbying issues for the UK leather industry fall into four main areas: raw materials; international trade issues; the environment and government support.

‘Our raw materials – hides and skins – are our life blood. Because they are a byproduct of the meat and dairy industries, the impact of emergency situations in relation to animal health, such as Foot and Mouth or BSE is huge. At such times UK Leather Federation plays an important role in representing the needs of our industry to government, in problem solving and by providing a two-way route for the flow of information. It is an important challenge to ensure that politicians and their officials understand the requirements of the leather industry, and to incorporate these within the emergency strategy.

‘Most recently, UK Leather Federation has been in discussions with DEFRA, the RPA and with the European Commission on the arrangements for handling and, if possible, processing of hides from the Older Cattle Disposal Scheme, where if European legislation is not amended, up to 700,000 perfectly safe and usable hides may have to be destroyed.

‘On international trade issues, UK Leather Federation fully supports the European Tanners Association COTANCE in its campaign to eliminate restrictions and unfair practices in international trade with regard to restrictions on exports of raw hides and skins and part processed leather.

‘I am pleased to say that UK Leather Federation has helped to address one problem area by co-ordinating an anti dumping case against imports of chamois leather from China, which was seriously affecting UK and other EU producers. The result was a provisional anti dumping duty of 62% which it is hoped will be confirmed shortly.

‘On environmental legislation there still appears to be a lack of joined up thinking on the issue of waste and byproducts and the rules governing recycling/utilisation and thermal processing with energy recovery.

‘Whilst everyone understands the need for sensible and reasonable environmental standards, these should be logical, technically justified and not put the UK/Europe at a serious competitive disadvantage compared with the rest of the world.

‘Europe should give a lead to the rest of the world by encouraging products to be made safer and more environmentally sound but imposing restrictions that encourage manufacturing elsewhere and allowing the importation of goods containing the very products that it wishes to eliminate, does nothing for the environment, and assists in creating the unnecessary contraction of our manufacturing base.

‘The REACH proposals are an example of this. Although the European Parliament has done much to have the original proposals watered down, there is still the unresolved question of whether producers of imported articles (leather or leather products) will have to meet the same requirements as those in Europe. These regulations are still under discussion and are due to be finalised this year. So keep nagging your MEPs – copy each one of them, because there are several representing each region of the UK.

‘However all these threats to our existence present not only challenges but also opportunities. I firmly believe that where Europe leads, others will follow. The route to survival and prosperity lies in innovation. Those countries which innovate will succeed in the global marketplace as health issues, environmental issues and free trade issues all rise higher on the domestic agendas of countries outside Europe. UK/European products that are able to address these concerns will have an advantage.

‘Perversely more restrictions and more legislation could have a positive effect on our industry but only if we rise to the challenge of innovation.

‘Our waste and byproducts are more difficult and expensive to dispose of so we must be more innovative in ways to reduce our process waste and reuse our byproducts. Energy costs continue to rise so again we must be innovative in finding ways to reduce our energy needs and turning our waste into energy.

‘Innovation though effective research and development should be done with the conviction to generate new products and processes to achieve a strong market position. UK investment in research and development is 1.89% of our domestic product. This is lower than the investment levels in the EU as a whole, the USA and Japan. Even in emerging economies such as Taiwan, China and South Korea, research and development investment will soon catch up with UK levels.

‘A recent study by the Manufacturing Foundation concluded that the best practice for companyies was that, having defined and adopted research and development strategy that works for your business, firms should network actively with technology companies, universities and customers to openly discuss ideas for new products and processes, then keep a customer focus and involve them in field trials as appropriate. Remember creating an expectation for our new developments can provide a captive market.

‘It is acknowledged that there is a general problem of access to research funding for our sector, mainly because the leather industry amongst others is no longer viewed as a sector to be supported by DTI. So again the trick is innovation and some lateral thinking. Leather is a vital component in so many other industries which DTI is prepared to support and working in collaboration with customers from the various industries we supply could generate the necessary funds. The UK leather industry has a great advantage that is often not realised or appreciated. We have on our doorstep BLC Leather Technology Centre and the University of Northampton which has a department committed to leather, science and technology. Both organisations should be vital partners in achieving our innovation targets and we must seek ways of capitalising on this knowledge bank for the benefit of us all.

‘Our many guests here tonight are all important stakeholders in our industry – customers, suppliers, business support agencies and others. We must use this opportunity to further the process of collaboration towards a common goal which is for all our industries, and there are many represented here this evening, to become world leaders in the generation of commercially successful new technology applications and state of the art developments.

‘UK Leather Federation will lobby UK and EU government to adopt a more proactive, outcome orientated approach to effectively support the development of a strong research and development base enabling leather manufacturers to prosper through continuous innovation. The role for us as manufacturers is to take on the challenge of developing new products and more efficient and sustainable manufacturing processes to feed our national and overseas markets.

‘I believe that customers will respond to a can-do attitude and will respect and be loyal to firms that strive to further innovation capability.

‘I repeat the plea that I made at our dinner two years ago. Each UK Leather Federation member company is a specialist in respect of a particular product or market sector supplying a wide range of internationally recognized brand names. I suggest that we miss a real opportunity if we cannot work together better in exploring market opportunities and continue to build a respected UK leather brand that reflects the quality and innovation of a sustainable and responsible industry. Then our customers can promote leather made in the UK as it will undoubtedly add value and credibility to their products.

‘Finally, I make no apology for making a small sales pitch, mainly to those of you who represent organisations who supply and use the output of the UK leather industry. Please consider an associate membership of UK Leather Federation. Your additional support would lend even more credibility to our industry and assist us in our constant battle to be heard. An effective federation will also provide a valuable forum for collaboration to ensure a viable and prosperous future for us all. I am greatly encouraged by the excellent response to our invitations to this dinner.’