The leather manufacturing industry is a true example of beneficial re-cycling of a potential waste by-product. Raw hides and skins, of which there is limited supply, are transformed into a useful and highly regarded intermediate product. This is beneficial for society. But there is a darker side. A relatively large amount of waste is produced during the leathermaking process. In some sectors, the industry suffers an image problem with a reputation as ‘dirty and polluting’ and an unpleasant place to work. We can make leather with minimal impact on the environment, but the question is how do you ensure tanners comply with best, or even basic standards and who pays?
Making durable leather from a hide or skin using a proven recipe is relatively simple. But the process of transformation is complex and much of the science is not well understood. With collagen, we are dealing with one of nature’s ultimate nanotechnologies. We are continually learning more about this basic structural unit and how to work with it. The tanning process is dynamic. Our raw material is diverse and changes with the age or sex of the animal, it also changes with the season. The requirements for finished leather are not static as they are driven by the dictates of fashion and changes in customer’s performance requirements. All of this makes for a challenging but exciting industry in which to work. Our need to master the technology and to develop new types of leather requires research. To make consistently good finished leather takes qualified and experienced technicians. Is our research focusing on the right things, as an industry are we attracting suitable talent, and is the training of our technicians sufficient for the coming challenges? The word ‘leather’ confers value on the article. This is why it is sought after by leading global luxury brands. This is also why some want to pass off synthetics as ‘leather-like’ or inferior compounded products as the genuine article.
A key point here is that the control of the image of leather and ultimate pricing is to a large extent out of the hands of the people who make and arguably really understand leather. Are retailers and owners of brands good stewards of the image of leather? Clearly some are, obviously others want to trade on the good name of leather and in so doing sully its reputation. Any strategic market analysis needs to define the value the final consumer perceives in the product or service provided.
Our industry’s most valued strength is the consumer’s perception of leather as a durable, functional, unique and aesthetically pleasing component of the article that they purchase. It is ultimately the perception in the mind of the retail customer that secures the value of leather as an industrial construction material. What are we doing as an industry to sustain the image of leather and its production? Leather is a renewable biological material with a lot of potential, but it appears that ‘brand leather’ as a component needs to be supported if it is to maintain its true identity. 
Follow-on comments on the challenges facing the industry, industry response, and the role of the IULTCS can be found on page 12