Leather is experiencing a crisis of identity that involves consumers who are bewildered by those who wage war against leather with paradoxical accusations and misleading campaigns based on incorrect assumptions. It also involves operators in the sector, who are overwhelmed by the tremendous amount of alternative materials and rhetoric that distorts the intrinsic values of leather.

These sentiments were echoed by Gianni Russo at his last annual meeting as president of UNIC (the association of Italian tanneries is about to change leadership), in which he emphasised the urgent need to adopt extraordinary communication measures. UNIC commissioned an agency that operates internationally “for a campaign that builds a strategic advertising path capable of countering the prevailing prejudices”, said Russo, who still oversees one of the most important European leather industry associations, since Italy is able to generate almost two thirds of the overall leather tanning value at the continental level.

Italian action is part of a context of authentic emergency, with the will of many other national and international associations to reaffirm the sustainability of the tanning process in the face of serious and unfounded accusations. The paradox is that if animalist attacks have failed to stop the meat industry – and the increase in slaughtering taking place at the global level is proof – they seem rather effective in hindering the growth of the leather industry, which constitutes a by-product of slaughtering and, if it were not to recover, would eventually become a form of environmental emergency in the shape of a landfill issue.

In addition to a tendency for consumers to move towards other materials, there is a preference for the footwear industry and other manufacturing sectors for leather alternatives, essentially for economic reasons (cutting yield, product standardisation and automation in the most labour-intensive phases). The result of this is clearly visible in the trend of the US market for raw hides. While the USDA data analysed by Hidenet reports an increase of about 20% in slaughter in the 2015–18 period (from 28.1 to 32.2 million cattle processed per year) with prospects for further growth later this year, prices of raw hides in the same period collapsed to historic lows in certain categories. The branded cows, which in 2014 exceeded $70, were sold for $5 at the end of June, a value also lower than that of the tragic first half of 2009.

A coherent message

Having ascertained the emergency and identified the cause, it is therefore necessary to take action – and here the matter is further complicated, because in the market the conditions for organising an effective international communication campaign to support leather seem to be lacking. The task of the campaign appears to be relatively simple, because it is not a question of demonstrating the unprovable, but of telling the general public about a form of sustainability that already exists, and that is only strengthened when compared to the unsustainability of most of the alternative materials derived from oil. To complete the picture, we add the fact that using vegetable fibres to replace leather appears, on a large scale, to be equally unsustainable, because it would determine the intensification of monocultures in agriculture and also important problems regarding food production, removing part of it from the market to move it to manufacturing.

The relative simplicity of the objective is countered by the difficulty of getting all the players able to agree – even financially – on a huge cost communication campaign. This is because the interest of a company in chemical products towards leather is certainly different from that of a tannery or a large slaughterer. Furthermore – and this is the reason for the Italian initiative – the contents that can be communicated by a developed country are different from those of a developing nation, which may not yet have adequately addressed the problem of environmental impact, and it is therefore difficult to identify a communication code that satisfies everyone.

A universal attempt at communication in the sector was carried out by Leather Naturally, a project that supports the use of globally manufactured, sustainable leather, and seeks to inspire and inform designers, creators and consumers about its beauty, quality and versatility. Leather Naturally’s members are tanneries, leather chemical manufacturers, machine manufacturers, service providers and brands.

Egbert Dikkers, chairman of the organisation, says, “Leather Naturally has grown from around 30 members 18 months ago to over 100 to date and has successfully completed funding for a global consumer campaign. We believe that this demonstrates an appetite within the industry for change and a willingness to work together to bring about that change.”

Leather Naturally works with both B2B and B2C communications; however, the separate campaign will be primarily B2C.

“We look to promote the educational content available on the Leather Naturally website through social media and to challenge some of the facts people think they know about leather, with the intention of raising awareness of the website as a resource. The consumer campaign will have its own separate social media channels that will both inform and inspire the use of leather as a material,” Dikkers adds.

Some national associations also joined Leather Naturally, and on the site we can see, among others, the logos of Conseil National du Cuir (France), Leather from Portugal, the Australian Hide, Skin and Leather Association (AHSLEA), Leather UK, and the Pakistan Tanners Association. The adhesions of the major world tanning associations are lacking (UNIC for Italy, CICB for Brazil, CLIA for China); however, Cotance, the European association of the tanning sector, has also commenced intensification of joint actions with Leather Naturally.

Amount of tannery waste destined for recovery, which increases to 84% considering all production waste in the supply chain.

“Cotance and Leather Naturally will intensify their collaboration with the leather industry to promote the uniqueness of leather as a sustainable material,” says news published on the Cotance website. This does not mean, however, that Cotance intends to enter into Leather Naturally, as evidenced by Gustavo Gonzalez-Quijano, Cotance’s general secretary.

He states, “Some national associations have joined, because their most influential members are already present in Leather Naturally, but my position is contrary. On the one hand because I do not see clear rules of engagement, on the other because I fear that we would not have the necessary strength, as Cotance, to say no in front of any undesired entries. We would end up being strong outside but weak inside.”

“Leather Naturally has grown to over 100 members to date and has successfully completed funding for a global consumer campaign. We believe that this demonstrates an appetite within the industry for change.”
Egbert Dikkers, Leather Naturally

Therefore, Cotance, while collaborating with all those who want to carry out promotional and communication actions on the use of finished leather, will continue to work with its own strength on various social media and to develop targeted actions based on the European funds available for communication projects.

“We are already active in this sense, as part of the Blueprint project Skills4Smart TCLF 2030 launched in six countries (Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Spain) and which involves the creation of a promotional video by country and a video for each of the sectors involved: textiles, footwear, leather and clothing,” he adds.

International collaboration

UNIC’s position on Leather Naturally and on any other international projects is the same as Cotance.

“We collaborate with Leather Naturally,” says Fulvia Bacchi, general director of UNIC, “and we look forward to understanding what the project’s developments will be, but our associates have asked us to do something more in terms of communication, with three objectives: enhancing leather against alternative materials, dismantle the fake news disseminated in the media and on social media, and combat the incorrect use of terms such as ‘ecopelle’ used for synthetic materials.

“Leather Naturally promotes leather in general, but Italian leather has peculiar aspects because no other country in the world invests in sustainability as we do. Furthermore, Italians are specialised in the fashion sector, while tanneries from other European countries operate mainly on a technical level, from footwear to automotive. Finally, Leather Naturally has raised the funds only this year, but we cannot afford to reason according to operations that last only one year.”

In its promotion plan on-site, UNIC aims at the customer and not only B2B.

“This is a difficult challenge, because it goes against an important sociocultural change, but it must be addressed,” says Bacchi. “This is not an initiative contrary to Leather Naturally, which on the other hand is present with us at the WLC in New York, but of a form of integration. UNIC supports the other initiatives and, in addition, intends to develop some more tools to tell the quality and healthiness of leather.”

From this point of view, Dikkers’ thinking is aligned with that of UNIC.

“Initiatives that promote leather through the industry working together are a positive thing and for the good, and Leather Naturally is open to collaborate with anyone in the promotion,” says Dikkers. “It would be great to understand where and how we can collaborate with UNIC. However, it should be carefully considered that if every national leather organisation ran separate campaigns it is doubtful if sufficient funds could be found in order to be effective.

“And campaigns that try to differentiate leather made in different countries could cause confusion in consumers, because once such a product is made, you cannot tell where the leather comes from, so you are relying on another party – the brand – to pass on that message,” he says.

Estimated quantity of raw hides and skins recovered globally by the tanning industry.

Engaging with millennials and Gen-Z

How can all possible initiatives be coordinated at international level so that they do not waste funds, but actually contribute to the defence and counterattack of leather with respect to the effectiveness of the action carried out by its enemies?

José Fernando Bello, executive president of CICB, says, “Communication cannot be made just once. It must be constant and consistent, made not only by entities or specific organisations, but by the whole industry, from the very big to the very small company, from professionals and employees, reaching as [big an] audience they can.

“We believe that this positioning should be done in multi-platforms, in a constant dialogue with public of the most varied profiles.”

Bello has in mind a direction aimed at a very specific consumer target.

“Establish a dialogue with young people, with their own language and narratives, about the value of leather, its differentials, and show why it is better. Millennials and Gen-Z are already important consumers and they will be the ones who will decisively dictate the rules in the near future.”
José Fernando Bello, CICB

“We need to talk to the new generations; they were born in a world where leather had lost space for alternative materials, so we need to bring them closer to the leather,” he explains. “Establish a dialogue with young people, with their own language and narratives, about the value of leather, its differentials, and show why it is better. Millennials and Gen-Z are already important consumers and they will be the ones who will decisively dictate the rules in the near future.”

CICB, with the Brazilian Leather Project, operates on social networks, creates communication materials and advertising campaigns, and has this year launched two photographic essays, Canvas and Brazilian Venus, with an aesthetic in harmony with what the millennials and Gen-Z generations are looking for. A goal achieved by Brazil, unlike in Europe, is the ban on the use of synthetic definitions such as ‘synthetic leather’ or ‘ecological leather’.

“It is the Law 4.888/65, in force since 1965, which states that only products from animal skin can be called leather,” says Bello. “CICB develops a national project to verify the communication regarding articles in leather or synthetic material. Advertising and verbal communication related to footwear, clothes, bags, accessories, upholstery and automotive upholstery are the main points verified by the project, which aims to spread the legal prediction among shop owners, sellers and consumers.”