The first joint venture Upholstery Leather Conference, held in Verona, Italy, May 1-2, by Leather International and Ron Sauer, ended on Monday with a very enjoyable trip to the Lamborghini factory. The conference was well attended and the speakers provided lots of interesting topics for discussion.

Highlights included the presentation of Zhu Kasen who founded the most successful tannery in China which he says is currently working 24/7. He good naturedly and humourously countered the many criticisms of his homeland, which stands accused of endangering the European leather industry, and said his tannery had developed a method of splitting a hide four times. He said it was a difficult task and suggested that possibly the west could also steal Chinese technology. He went on the say that you cannot always copy others because that way you always follow but never lead. He said: ‘We want to be the best.’

Bernardo Finco of the Vicenza tanners association told delegates that it costs the same to produce top quality leather in Italy as it does in China. Despite lower labour and energy costs, technology is harder to source and more expensive in China. Also Chinese tanners need to invest quite heavily in spare parts in order to avoid down time when replacements are needed. When it comes to lower grades, however, China is in a much better position to produce as it is more labour intensive to finish poorer raw materials. He said the biggest problem facing European tanneries was that half the world’s supplies of raw materials were subject to protectionist measures. Acknowledging the expansion of the industry in China, he said the country did not have the required domestic hide supply and wondered if they would expand sufficiently to mop up all the available hide supplies from the world market.

One particular recurring topic for discussion was that of the acceptability of natural markings in leather for automotive use and a distinction must be drawn between natural markings and defects which are totally rejected. John Williams of Ford Motor Company said they were interested in getting consumers to accept marks and that it was necessary to go to dealerships and train the staff to market the leather by explaining why a mark on the seat was desirable. Jeff Baron, a furniture industry consultant who said he would willingly give his time to train people to accept natural markings in leather, said that the rejection of all defects by the automotive industry led to huge amounts of waste. He put it as high as 60%, which was the equivalent of six out of every ten hides purchased.

Dr Bernard Angermaier, Audi, said they provided catalogues of what levels of markings are acceptable. They train dealers and issue handbooks to help those customers with extra wear needs so that dealers know, for instance, that aniline leathers need extra care. They provide samples for customers to see, feel and smell and information on after care products. They also provide samples, in some cases whole seat covers, to show what levels of markings are acceptable and where. Audi have now changed their specifications to a heavier substance leather which is less prone to wrinkles and damage. They have also moved away from chrome because in a few years’ time, a new European automotive directive is coming which may require any factory with more than 3% chrome to burn their waste in combustion plants which will add to costs. They do not say chrome is toxic but that the market does not want it.