Let’s go back a few decades to when a tanner was a person who knew little or nothing about chemistry and just by pure experience, business acumen, luck and the right association with purchase and sales agents as well as self-made chemists, was able to establish himself as an industrialist. Business was not too difficult.

There were cables and some telexes, no fax, no email, no computers, no regulations, no quality control and all did what they thought best for their company. Many tanners in developing countries could neither read nor write. Some still can’t. There was no need to coordinate and fashion was not as demanding as it is now. Everybody made money. The pie was huge and there was a bite for all.

Step by step this sort of wild-west evolved into a more sophisticated and more demanding business where quality and pollution controls were enforced, knowledge of chemistry became a must, and university educated businessmen developed into sector tycoons.

At the same time as this sophistication of the sector took place, the sector’s opponents (PETA, Greenpeace at the one side and now recently the TFT Leather and Shoe Group at the other side, as well as many other environmental and veterinary organisations) took and take a sharp look at the leather industry. None have an objectively informed idea about this industry! Our fault, not theirs!

Apart from some sector friendly/promotion campaigns launched by the Italians (ie Vera Pelle and Vero Cuoio), the leather industry has done little or nothing to promote its products or to give the general public insight in what this industry stands for by contradicting the infamous accusations launched by our opponents. Professional organisations and associations have done little or nothing.

Nobody took even the smallest step (as far as I know) to protect the word ‘leather’, so the market is now flooded with plastics that are called faux leather, leatherette, synthetic leather, simil-leather, artificial leather etc, but they are NOT leather and nobody, including the associations, is doing anything about it. The French protected the words ‘champagne’ and ‘Roquefort’, the Italians ‘pizza’ and ‘parmigiano’, the Swiss ‘Emmenthal’ and so forth but we are unwilling to protect the word LEATHER.

I Googled synthetic leather and this is what I came up with: ‘Synthetic leather is a man made fabric that looks like leather. It has a leather-like surface and is dyed and treated to make it have the look and feel of real leather. It is often used as a substitute for real leather because it is less expensive and it does not require using a real animal hide to create.’ So it’s not leather. Then why accept that it’s called leather????

Wikipedia says leather ‘is a durable and flexible material created via the tanning of putrescible animal rawhide and skin, primarily cattle hide. It can be produced through different manufacturing processes, ranging from cottage industry to heavy industry’. It doesn’t say that leather is a by-product of the meat industry.

As I said, the industry or those who are paid to represent the industry are doing little or nothing about putting the industry into a proper light. Who has gone to the EU Commission and put a petition on the table, as the Champagne and Roquefort producers have done, that demands that the EU prohibit the use of the word LEATHER when the material is not leather? Who went to check with a lawyer specialised in product protection to verify if non-leather materials can be called leather? NOBODY!

So when the campaign ‘Leather Naturally!’ announced itself last year I thought that at long last we had done it, found a group of people who take the rights of leather industry seriously and that we really would be able to present and promote leather for what it really is. I wrote that one of the secrets of making Leather Naturally! work is to finance it.

During last year’s presentation dinner of the LN campaign people (including the ICT – ever heard of them?) went out of their way to show their backing and appreciation. A year later the campaign is underfunded because most of the good intentions shown and promises given last year didn’t transform into money in the bank. Very few commitments were kept.

Regretfully the leather industry is an amalgamation of a lot of small and medium enterprises. Very few of these enterprises think as an industry sector, like companies do in oil, steel etc. The approach of this industry in the global market place is extremely individualistic. Each enterprise wages his own little battle to conquer markets and the main objective is to outdo the competition and become better, bigger and richer than the guy next door.

Few or none are prepared to look at the big picture and help to become one instead of the agglomerate of a 100,000 or more relatively small industries. If those 100,000 would act and talk as one, then we’d have a voice that can be heard from here to the moon. Pure small mindedness and individual jealousy reigns. None wants to make a contribution to the big picture unless he gets his (more than) fair share of the benefits that are eventually generated. All are afraid that his competitor may have a bigger benefit.

Few realise that if all sustain the effort to promote leather and its industry, all will benefit and in the same proportion as everybody is suffering from the effects of bad publicity and actions by the likes of Greenpeace or PETA. So in the end what difference does it make on the bottom line if one stakeholder contributes 500 dollars and another 1,000 (per year, not per day!!!!) when you produce 5 million sq ft or 500,000 pairs of shoes?

Leather people all over the world are generally pretty well off. They drive big expensive cars, most fly business class, all have more than respectable houses, so they treat themselves (deservedly) well. And why not? So why start penny pinching for a few hundred dollars and use precision scales to check the benefits those few hundred dollars may generate?

If everybody contributes to the Leather Naturally! campaign, everybody will benefit. If few or nobody does, everybody will suffer! So let’s look reality in the eyes! Do we want to progress as an industrial sector or do we all want to submit ourselves to the misinformation that is being fed to the press? Do we want plastic manufacturers to use the word leather to sell their products? Is the image of our industry worth a contribution of $500/$1,000 per company per year, which is less than the one-packet-per-day smoker spends on his cigarettes in a year? Remember we talk about hides and skin producers, merchants, tanners, chemical and machinery manufacturers, shoe and leather goods manufacturers, in short, if we unite we are a huge crowd with considerable clout! And if some miser doesn’t want to pay, who cares!

Sam Setter