It should be clear to all who work in the leather value-chain – from raw hide to consumer article – that we are on to a good thing. Leather has a wonderful story, a good market reputation, and great potential. As we are all in this together, there should be a common interest in working together to sustain the image and identity of leather as a high value component of leather articles. How can we improve and sustain this effort through a supply chain that is highly fragmented?

I believe the identity of leather is under threat from three main areas.  First, the synthetics industry has worked for decades to copy the look, touch and handle of leather. Synthetic products available today are a lot closer than previous offerings. In fact, it is sometimes difficult for a leather expert to distinguish a genuine leather article from synthetic substitute at point of retail – (although over time and with use the differences become more obvious). Second, some retailers are increasingly able to confuse the final consumer by using terms such as ‘leather-like’ or ‘composite leather’ in describing their products. The third point is a perception shared by many in the industry that much of the leather produced today is of inferior quality. This is not because of deterioration of raw material but because pressure on pricing encourages leather to be made ‘good enough for purpose’ or to be ‘made to price point’. Technology is used to ‘upgrade’ the appearance of finished leather, not always to improve performance.
Some positive steps are being taken. One of the best ways to defend against synthetics and inferior quality leathers is to clearly differentiate and label quality products. The recent work of the ICT and Cotance to define what leather is and what retailers can claim as leather is encouraging. Standards raise competitive barriers and make it more difficult for purveyors of synthetics or inferior products to confuse the consumer. These standards then need to be clearly understood through the retail chain and communicated to the consuming public. We need greater global participation and industry support for these types of initiative.

Image of the industry:
I believe the image of the global tanning industry can be improved, especially with regard to pollution and environmental sustainability. It is not just from a moral and ethical viewpoint that we need to be good stewards of the environment, but a business case can also be made for sustainability in manufacturing. A cleaner image enhances the perception of value and will also defuse the arguments of animal rights activists who target leather as a tactic in their battle against the meat industry. The greatest environmental issues revolve around the volume of dissolved solids in effluent and the amount of organic waste produced. With structural changes and investment, these problems are relatively easy to resolve. One of the difficulties in making this happen is that most tanneries are small to medium enterprises with little incentive to raise standards. There is overcapacity, strong competition, and leather buyers push hard to keep prices down.
Improvements can be stimulated in various ways. Change can come from the persuasive influence of leather industry organisations that set guidelines and establish benchmarks. Change can come about by responsible retailers or brand owners who have the ability to enforce standards. Change can also come from government intervention. Regulatory bodies can set standards and monitor compliance. In reality, it will probably take participation of all three actors to ensure changes in industry practice take place globally. 
Improvements towards cleaner and more sustainable leather manufacture are ongoing. We witness government interventions, such as the recent crackdown in China directed at the smaller, more polluting tanneries. We have seen actions taken in southern India to ensure effluent is treated and recycled. We are seeing progress towards the development of tanning clusters with modern common effluent treatment plants (CETPs) in some countries, often those with the most outdated facilities and biggest effluent issues. Globally there seems to be increased vigilance to ensure effluent standards are met and action is taken against corrupt practices. We applaud the efforts of individual tanneries or groups who adopt high environmental standards, ethical work practices, and focus on making the best quality leather products. We recognise initiatives like the ‘Leather Working Group’ where retail brands, tanners and other industry players work together towards higher standards by establishing metrics and goals against which producers can be measured. We also see initiatives such as ‘Tannery of the Year’ being put in place which aim to encourage excellence by peer recognition. This should help upgrade our industry image.

IULTCS initiatives
The existing IU Test & Environmental Commissions are well known and recognised for the work they do in establishing test methods that make sense for leather and for sharing information on regional environmental practice.
Following the Istanbul Euro II Conference in 2006 and the 2007 ILF meeting, the IULTCS resolved that it can do more to provide greater support for global industry needs. The IULTCS has now established a Research Commission (IUR) to help focus available resources on industry needs. The IULTCS has also established a Training Commission (IUT) to assist with ongoing education needs and a Liaison Commission (IUL) to help with clear and positive communication on issues within the industry. These initiatives are all being actively pursued by the IULTCS and its members. I believe that there is greater communication and cooperation within the global leathermaking industry today, more than ever before. It is especially encouraging to see greater participation by some retailers and brand owners, not just in the quality of products, but more interest in ethical issues and sustainability of the supply chain. All global efforts that seek to differentiate quality leather from inferior alternatives, reduce pollution, and improve the sustainability of manufacturing need to be recognised, encouraged and supported. The entire value-chain should celebrate industry achievements, as we all share in its success.