The creation of an International Leather Forum was proposed by Marc Folachier during round table discussions at the recent IULTCS Eurocongress in Istanbul. Folachier, president (and also head of CTC France) said that the leather industry had lost a lot of markets which had not been replaced. He referred particularly to running shoes, ski boots and firemen’s jackets which were traditionally made of leather and are no longer. For this reason, he said the industry needed to be more creative.

According to Folachier, there are solutions in existence for many of the problems encountered by the leather industry but the cost of applying them means that they are unlikely to be used. According to one chemical supplier, new products may be in existence but the huge cost of bringing them to the market leaves them as potential products only. His own company is field testing one promising new development but he doubted it would ever be launched.

The sad fact is that the industry has been accused as lacking in innovation but the truth is that there is a great deal of innovation, it is just that it has to be directed towards replacing products which are no longer acceptable. Universities increasingly require that their research projects are fully funded and chemicals companies are faced with the high cost of registering their products under European regulations. Is it any wonder, then, that the majority of current advancement in technology is based on financial and regulatory requirements rather than in innovation pure and simple.

This is extremely worrying when you consider that the west still survives because it holds the key to technology, enabling the development of products with greater proficiency. If the west is forced to stay still, what will the long term future hold?

When it comes to research, Dietrich Tegtmeyer, LANXESS, said that everyone looks to the chemicals companies. Tailor-made chemical innovation has to come from a chemist who understands the leather process and such people are mainly to be found within the chemicals companies. He referred to the Heidemann lecture, which followed the life of the great man himself and chronicled his discoveries (by Dr M Lange), and said that most innovation and R&D in the past had come from Europe and had been launched first in Europe.

He said that Asia was very good at reproducing and scaling up to mass production which complements the European talent for innovation and research. The situation now is that a company can only sustain research activities if they are globally present and innovations are introduced worldwide.

The LANXESS technical innovation centre is currently in Europe and this situation will be re-evaluated in five years time when Tegtmeyer believes the decision will be to retain the status quo. He said that Europe is the perfect place to be because it is globally accessible. He also referred to the fact that a great deal of research funds are required to change products according to changing regulations. He said that this is innovation in a sense but different from the former understanding of novel products.

Folachier favours the development of universal standards and said he would like to see the creation of two more IU commissions. There are already four in existence and he proposed that others be created, one for research and the other for training. This was later ratified by the organising committee with UT – Training to be headed by Prof Geoff Attenburrow, BSLT, and IUR – Research headed by Folachier. It is hoped to hold the first meetings of these two new commissions during the Paris show in September 2006.

Folachier wants the industry to establish an international leather forum bringing together all leather related organisations and training institutes, and enabling them to speak with a single voice. He envisages a sharing of knowledge and experience to the benefit of all. His key words are: innovation, creativity, training and communication.

The ‘International Leather Forum’ requires some further defining but approaches have already been made to ICT and Cotance to participate. Approaches may also be made to hide traders associations such as ICHSLTA and possibly to retailers and brands. Work will progress between now and the IULTCS Washington Congress to see if an initial meeting could be held in June 2007 at the time of that congress.

At the gala dinner towards the end of the congress, Folachier reported that he had received a mandate from the executive committee to make proposals to all potential partners for the setting up of a worldwide dialogue within the framework of the ‘International Leather Forum and ‘as a way to thank our Turkish friends, we propose to call this The Istanbul Initiative’.

Volcan Candar pointed to the importance of keeping the leather industry alive while the world seems to be looking for ever cheaper leather or its alternatives. And another delegate said that the hide traders at one end of the value chain and the retailers and brands at the other, strongly resist a slump in raw materials prices or for prices of consumer goods to rise, leaving the poor tanner in the middle, unable in most cases to raise his prices and pass on cost increases. This has a deleterous effect on the quality of leather. It has now become a matter of fit for purpose rather than the best leather for the job and this is bound to have a negative impact on the perception of leather as a luxury product.

Future congresses are planned as follows: Chengdu October 2006; Washington June 2007; Rio de Janeiro October 2008; Beijing October 2009.