At the annual meeting of the International Council of Tanners, held in Hong Kong on March 31, Tony Mossop, the incoming president, described the ICT as a venerable and significant organisation and one that had been served by some of the great men of our industry.

He said:’When I attended one of my first ICT meetings some years ago there was a crisis afoot – BSE had been detected in the UK, and the resulting panic seemed to draw a buzzing and concerned audience to the meeting to listen to Drs Ken Alexander and Robert Sykes as they presented the picture of a sorely tried UK industry battling a problem that has simply refused to go away. It seems our members needed a catastrophe to encourage attendance. If so, where is everyone today?

‘We have been through a series of cataclysmic events in our trade since then – the Russian/Turkish market crash and attendant commercial problems, low prices leading to stratospheric prices in just a few months, poor demand in certain sectors such as footwear, not to mention the luxury Asian markets, and now foot and mouth disease seemingly running wild like a rash through herds in several continents.

‘And to top it all, we have a group of ill-informed yet highly focused and dangerous folk trying to kill our industry because they think we are responsible for the deaths of the animals whose hides and skins we process into such a beautiful and useful product. If we thought we had problems a few years ago, we were rather optimistic.

‘My message to this meeting and to the world’s leather industry, which we do our best to represent, is this: perhaps ICT has been too low-key, too shy and retiring. We are the World Parliament of Tanners. We need more member countries, at a time of great turmoil in the leather industry, and at a time when everyone tends to ‘look inwards’, and not show much interest in associations, whether national, regional or international.

‘Despite the globalisation of our industry – indeed, all trade – this short-sighted selfish tendency needs to be reversed. This is not an easy task: we are an under-funded and under-resourced organisation, seen by some to be too Eurocentric. Imaginative proposals have been made by concerned individuals, such as combining with ICHSLTA, and creating a secretariat in a neutral country such as Switzerland or Singapore.

‘China is waiting to host an ICT Council meeting – and has also offered a venue for a future IULTCS congress. There is a resource of potential member countries out there which we need to tap, and I ask you to promote the concept of our council as THE forum which MUST be supported if we tanners are to survive against bunny-huggers, over-motivated environmental lawyers, customers who create ridiculous specifications, and villains who lurk out there trying to rip us off.

‘Our Italian members have proposed an innovated and simplified raw material contract which I feel merits thorough consideration – this will not rest easily with our friends at ICHSLTA.

‘As our customers become more demanding, even paranoid, as governments and commissions raise the bar on environmental and commercial issues, and as trade in raw material and finished products seems to be subject to more shady practice and more restrictions by the month, surely there is a significant role for our council to play in this potential minefield. I hope I can depend on the support of all of you here today, as well as all our member associations, in our quest to raise the profile of the International Council of Tanners.

On the agenda

Discussions took place both at the meeting and with ICHSLTA regarding the possible revision of the No 6 contract. While the ICT wish to proceed and unanimously authorised the contracts committee and presidency to carry out negotiations with ICHSLTA, the traders at their own meeting agreed to the need for a period of stability and declined to consider further changes for a further three to four years. Tony Cox says that his members think that the present contract is working very well and that they are concerned about the very high cost of translation work which is involved when amendments are made.

There were two invited speakers at the conference: Dr Grant Darrie of Elementis Chromium and Sam Setter, Leather International’s Lime Blast columnist. Darrie had previously presented a paper at the BLC’s annual seminar last year on life cycle analysis of chromium (see Leather, May).

In Hong Kong his approach was more to do with the relationship between the chrome chemicals industry and leather but he did introduce the significance of life cycle analysis in the decision making process currently being used by major international customers.

Because Sam Setter is a pseudonym for a very real person in the leather industry it fell to Shelagh Davy, editor, Leather International, to present his case to the meeting. She began in her own words before switching to Sam’s.

‘First of all I would like to say that I am not Sam Setter, have never been Sam Setter and, in fact, am the wrong gender to ever be Sam Setter.

‘On Sunday I switched on the television set as I like to watch something while I am ironing. I was confronted by a teenage girl pronouncing that ‘if we had less desire for leather there would be more cows in the fields.’ I decided to continue watching.

‘The programme was about college students and the plot for this week’s episode was of a rather plain girl who felt very strongly about animal rights, quoting huge chunks from PETA regarding cows and their calves being driven huge distances and goaded by the use of chillies to drive them over the borders from India for slaughter for leather making.

‘Her ‘friend’ who made the original statement incites her to vandalism in a shop which is selling rugs apparently made of zebra skin. She is arrested and later has to pay for the damaged goods which are, in any case, faked.

‘The moral of the tale is that the plain jane gets the guy because she has strong convictions while the other girl is judged a lousy friend, shallow and lacking any strong convictions.

Which all goes to show how PETA have successfully got their message across.

‘I do not remember the exact circumstances of the birth of Sam. Over the years a number of outspoken people have asked me why I do not write about this or that and I generally turn it round and invite them to do it themselves, anonymously if preferred.

‘Few take me up on my offer and I must admit that when Sam did I never dreamed that he would manage to continue month after month and that his writing would prove so popular. It has also been fun fielding all the conjecture as to his identity. Charlie Myers and Ron Sauer have been two suggestions.

First of all let me assure you that I am not Sam Setter in disguise. Sam was invited by your president Tony Mossop to address this meeting, and since he probably wanted to save the aeroplane ticket, maintain his anonymity and take up the challenge of this speech, he asked me to become his mouth piece:

A dirty and smelly industry?

‘First of all I would like to thank you for the invitation you have extended to me. I feel honoured and, yes, also a little embarrassed to address this meeting. Mr Mossop read my November Limeblast that dealt with what I consider to be the apathy of our industry when it is confronted with external threats such as the attack on the Indian leather industry by PETA last spring.

‘Unfortunately the leather industry is not a major player in the world’s financial and industrial environment, not because we don’t move enough money or because we are fundamentally unimportant on a global scale, but mainly because we keep too much to our own, letting ourselves be guided by the events rather than trying to influence those events. We simply don’t know how to sell ourselves as an industry, an important industry, to the public.

‘Furthermore we have either none or a poor image after people establish that you are not from the fur side of the trade which is still considered prestigious. When a hide trader presents himself, the first thing the public imagines is a guy who handles badly smelling parts of dead animals, which were probably even clubbed to death in pools of blood which is the message that PETA wants its public to understand.

‘A tanner is generally considered a small industrialist who has a dirty and smelly little factory that threatens the eco system and processes parts of dead animals. Nobody ever even considers that the poor dead animal was in the first place killed to be eaten, and this long before our industry was able to lay its hands on it.

‘Only when we move up the ladder, in a matter of speaking, to the manufacturing industry, will we meet job appreciation. In the public eye a shoemaker is a person who transforms fine leather into fashionable shoes. The garment manufacturer is put at the same level of the fashion designers and elegant fashion houses. The adjectives change from death, dirt, and bad odours, to fine, fashion and elegance, from negative to positive.

‘PETA used this negative public image of the first steps of our industrial staircase to their advantage by connecting the leather industry to the mistreatment of animals, the killing of these poor innocent beings purely raised to be robbed of their lovely skin. And in no time they have been able to get the tree-huggers and dog-kissers, which are an absolute minority, into the street and demonstrate.

‘PETA presented their case successfully and instead of opposing them in this one-sided and totally incorrect and corrupt picture, we simply rolled over and gave PETA what they wanted.

‘I won’t say that the leather industry has not been guilty of misbehaviour. We have heavily polluted the environment, and in many countries we still do, but we have been and are amongst the very first industries who got their act together. Huge sums of money have been successfully invested to make our industry environment-friendly.

‘We can be proud of ourselves, as huge sacrifices have been made both in terms of money and in terms of tragedies when old tanneries, pioneers in the field, were forced to close when they were unable to cope with the modernisation and its cost. All of us know the facts, but the public does not.

‘We have never told the public that this industry is a main player in keeping the environment clean by processing material, the hides and skins that are recovered from the meat industry, that could become hazardous to the public health if left unprocessed. We provide jobs, hundreds of thousands of jobs, which are endangered if Miss Anderson and Sir Paul McCartney are allowed to misinform Joe and Jane Doe.

‘The fact that our industry does not reach out to the public is not clever at all. The time of the cavemen is long past, ostrich tactics don’t work anymore, and we can expect further attacks from tree-huggers and environmentalists in general, whenever it suits them, and when that occurs we either roll over again or are forced to expend huge efforts and large sums of money to defend ourselves.

‘A website ‘People Eating Tasty Animal’ (PETA here is again the acronym) is amusing and exposes the insane attitude of eco extremism, but it is not a serious approach to the problem. Other industries are thinking differently. They have learned to think ahead of the events.

‘The oil industry, and in particular Shell and BP, have sustained huge campaigns to show how environment friendly they are. The pharmaceutical industry takes out huge ads in newspapers and magazines to show how beneficial they are for mankind, which makes the public accept the occasional spill of dangerous chemicals into the Rhine river. They have obviously learned from their past mistakes. We haven’t.

‘We cannot compare the leather industry with Shell or Novartis, but on a smaller scale we could present our industry to the public in a different light, and change the image of murderers at a very low cost.

‘Again at this very moment our industry is submitted to a negative image created by the outside problems of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease. The recent Paris fashion shows talk about plastics for the next winter season instead of leather and if this trend takes hold we may well face another crisis.

‘We should influence the fashion designers rather than being influenced by them. Lobbying is a common practice, so why not in the leather industry. We should obtain a seal of approval from the world’s fashion designers, who make a fair share of their income from the products of our labour.

‘The Internet is an extremely powerful means of communication and it is used and abused by an ever growing number or people. PETA are using, and in our case abusing, their website to inform whoever accesses it about the arguments that they have at heart, seen from their point of view and pushing their agenda, one-sided, one-tracked.

‘We have seen that the random attack on India’s leather industry via the US consumer has been extremely efficient, because the Indian tanners have scrambled to try to accommodate PETA in their demands. The move to attack a very sensitive part of an industry, the retailer, who is not even closely connected to PETA’s supposed enemy has been extremely clever.

‘I don’t know if after the waged war something has changed for the poor cows in India though…. According to an article in the Business Standard of New Delhi, dated March 21st, we can assume that nothing has changed for the cows and we can just as safely assume that PETA will once more dig up their war axe.

‘They now have even more amunition, correct or not, and they will use BSE and foot and mouth disease to keep the consumer away from leather. Our collegues in India are definitely unable to change long standing habits, even if they are wrong and cruel. If there is no political will, particularly where these changes are actually required outside our industry, in an unorganised world of little people who just about break even in their living.

‘Analysing these facts we can only attribute the success of PETA to their ability to mobilise an army of blind followers and then attack an opponent that is unreachable, not organised and certainly not united, in our case the men who transport animals to slaughter, via the first available most sensitive connection.

‘For the attacker, PETA, but it could be anybody, the question of whether the attack is right or wrong is totally irrelevant. It matters not if those who let themselves get involved and manoeuvred by this one-sided publicity flood are correctly informed. It is simply not part of their agenda, but it damages the attacked.

‘The same success is also due to the fact that the attacked, our industry, has no access whatsoever to PETA’s audience, and that dear colleagues and friends has to be changed.

‘In my opinion this is just the beginning, because with their huge success, even if the storm seems to have calmed down at this moment, PETA and/or others will sharpen their knives again and get at our industry whenever they see fit and whenever they need the publicity.

‘And the attack may come from a corner that we won’t expect. Our industry is unfortunately open to such attacks, because we lack what is called Public Relations, capable of speaking out in favour of our industry.

‘PR is something extremely important for an industry like ours where, in this case, we are incorrectly accused of being involved in mistreatment of animals, where pollution is an always present danger, lurking around the corner. Our industry is unfortunately wide open to criticism.

‘What I would like to propose is that we get ourselves organised and make ourselves known to the general public in a way that people are correctly informed about what our industry actually represents: a valid way to create jobs, to process material that otherwise would be a health hazard, etc. etc. etc. And at the same time we can, or better, we must, also promote the validity of our product compared with other products.

‘In short we should educate the general public from our point of view. Let us show the public that animal mistreatment, pollution and similar negative factors are an exception, not the rule. Let us show the public that the demand by Stella McCartney that BA tear out the leather seating in their first class cabins simply doesn’t make sense.

‘The purpose is to promote our industry the way it is and not as others wish to present us as a bunch of torturers, murderers and polluters. Constructive, honest publicity for the industry as a whole and not as individual production units is required.

‘The ICT is an ideal forum to take this PR necessity under its wings and unite an industry that is composed of a myriad of relatively small industries. I had called for reactions in my Lime blast, but only a few saw that as a mandate to create a PR page on the web.

‘In the present foot and mouth disease situation it is possible that Western Europe will cull a million head of cattle. The result of the disease currently is that raw prices are prohibitive and tanners are unable to supply themselves at prices that permit them to at least break even.

‘Raw materials are scarce, both because of reduced slaughter and because raw hides and skins are not allowed to be transported from (a) to (b). It seems that the European experts, whoever they may be, have convinced the EU Commission that processed hides are not contributing to the spreading of the disease, so Europe will allow culled animals to be stripped of their hides.

‘This means, however, provided it is feasible which I don’t think it is (Lime blast June), that after a void in the supply of hides in which the market has jumped skyscraper high, the same market will drop like a stone if and when a million hides suddenly become available. Many may lose their shirts in the process.

‘The farmers and butchers are in the news and are screaming about their livelihood. All true and all extremely regretful, but the farmers are very well organised and their own country together with the EU will in the end pick up the bill, and even if losses are made, they will be restricted.

‘Our industry is suffering too from the same crisis and it is legitimate to suppose that our industry will be facing another difficult period. Now, who stands up for our interests? There will be no tractors on the roads, no tv coverage of tanneries that lie idle, or shoe factories that have to buy their leather at exorbitant prices, nobody is screaming hell and fire because the chemical industry will have to curtail their production of tanning agents, maybe losing precious jobs.

‘We are left alone and we have to work out for ourselves how to get out of this new pit and struggle forward, only because one group is well organised and recognised in the right places, and the other group, we are being gentlemen…..something which is totally misplaced in the present context of developments.

‘Don’t think that we would be wasting time and money getting ourselves online, and don’t think that consumers all over the world don’t surf the Internet and look for information relative to our industry. They do! And what they find is PETA whereas they should have found us!

‘I am sure that everyone of you who has a website has occasionally received some odd inquiry from a private person, who wanted a particular type of leather or wanted answers to a variety of questions. All big industries have important websites which actually aim to educate people.

‘Our industry is not in that league, and it doesn’t make sense that a hide merchant, or a tannery, just to name some, buy full page newspaper space to explain the virtues of their involvement in pollution control, or to explain that he has nothing to do with the mistreatment of animals somewhere in Timbuktu, but it does make sense if we do it as a united front.

‘Our industry can do better than succumb to the random attack of a badly informed and manipulated minority, who think that by shouting loud they can improve the world.

‘Don’t think that the governments will remain idle if they get an honest and clear report about the difficulties our industry may face. We are important, very important, only we are too modest to talk about it.

‘I sincerely hope that the ICT will adopt some resolution here in Hong Kong to get out of this long winter sleep, and create a website to inform the public and create a commission to defend our interests.