Once upon a time, many decades ago, Europe and North America ruled the leather world – and world leather. They had the biggest, most modern, most efficient tanneries. They invented all the new machines and chemical processes. They made most of the world’s shoes and leathergoods.

And to do this they bought most of the world’s raw material to complement the hides and skins they generated themselves. From this environment was born ICT. Its members were mostly citizens of countries in the aforementioned regions. They bought and traded, tanned and finished, and sold to a fairly narrow circle of clients more-or-less on their doorstep. All pretty comfortable stuff.

What changes we’ve all seen in the leather industry in the last three decades: a centre of gravity now hovering over South East Asia; escalating environmental costs in the ‘old world’; the rise of brands, transferring power to the brand-owner, the distributor and the retailer…and the emergence of protectionist policies from governments seeking to develop their economies by providing jobs and beneficiating raw materials.

At this stage the ‘old world’, particularly Italy and Germany, still make the best machines and come up with the most novel chemistry, as well as the finest designs for finished products. But the work’s done in China, Brazil or India – where developments in the service industries are also proceeding apace. The words ‘watch this space’ seem to refer to one of those constantly changing electronic billboards in Times Square.

I attended my first ICT meeting in Hong Kong, representing South Africa, purely out of interest, in around 1994. I was surrounded by legends in the industry: men such as Sykes, Koppany and Segerdahl wouldn’t miss a meeting – after all, we only had one each year, an opportunity to chew the cud with one’s fellow ‘captains’, discuss state of trade, and occasionally a crisis, such as the BSE catastrophe which cropped up a couple of years later – that was a well-attended gathering! There was no other such forum for discussion in the entire leather world.

There still isn’t.

When I was approached by then-president Colin Chaffer to stand as vice president a few years later, I was encouraged by my South African colleagues, including a certain Gunther Hackmann, who was incumbent president of ICHSLTA. We even discussed a proposal to link and possibly merge the two bodies at some time in the future, as we could both see the impending difficulty in maintaining global trade organisations in a time when the world’s leather industry was becoming more and more regionalised.

As Asian countries, such as China, embraced membership of ICT, so European nations seemed to be retreating into the shell of Cotance. The ICT doctrine of ‘free trade’, once a cornerstone of the existence of European tanners (who cast it in this stone in the first place when they controlled global raw material purchases), has now become the reason why some countries and organisations denigrate ICT and either resign or avoid meetings.

Surely ICT has more to offer than that?

So why has ICT declined in potency over the last decade? One of the major reasons is lack of funding. We can all see how hard it is for most ‘clubs’ to retain membership these days, whether they be sports clubs, charities, social movements or even the international wine and food societies around the world!

Times and needs change, economies develop and shrink, and politicians control a whole lot more than they used to. ICT is not a political body – it can no more forbid a member country from protecting its raw material in the form of a duty or an export ban, than can the US ‘win’ in Iraq.

It has not got the political clout to do so. Nor has it the funds to mount a significant campaign, even if all its members agreed that this was a good way to spend money.

I happen to come from a country with absolutely no restrictions (other than veterinary) on the import or export of any type of hide or skin, so I happen to agree with Cotance’s stand on free trade. My own company has found the protectionism of Brazil and India very difficult to deal with! But I still feel strongly that it is better for Cotance, for which I have great respect as a trade body, to remain involved with ICT, and to use it as a forum to engage those countries whose trade policies they oppose, rather than resign in a huff and refuse to talk.

Likewise ICHSLTA: what happened to the dialogue between our two organisations which proceeded constructively for several years? Why could our two threatened bodies not get closer together. Vested interests? Mistrust? Or possibly that rather elegant new hide contract proposed by our Italian members.

Sure, it tended to favour the tanner, but it was drawn up by tanners…for a change! It’s certainly easier to navigate than the Dickensian document which has been cut-and-pasted for the last forty years, and which is becoming less and less relevant as that world centre of leather gravity has shifted.

Now, we should be negotiating this issue, just as we have many times before, and not letting this one item spoil relations be-between all parties involved.

In October I relinquish the chair of ICT to Japan, with our next vice president probably emerging from Brazil – both countries whose governments have, for different reasons, protected sectors of their leather industries. This does not sit well in the courts of Europe.

What I suggest is that these courtiers attend the ICT council meeting and voice their disapproval – even by ballot, if necessary. The reason the two gentlemen concerned are about to assume office is because they HAVE attended meetings, and have a great interest in the global leather business. If more were to participate rather than bicker, I am sure ICT would once again prosper.

Because there are many other issues of import for our ancient trade than just protectionism. The ICT secretariat, operating on a ludicrously tiny budget, represents all members in forums relating to the environment, animal rights issues, standards bodies, product promotion and education. With more cash available they could do such a good job, from their base within a world-class organisation such as BLC! And even help sort out the uneven playing fields caused by restrictions to raw material access, too.

Surely it’s best to be inside the fence looking out than outside it looking in? If this sounds like Custer referring to the ‘Indians’, then it’s sure not meant to! We all know the result of that match.

Tony Mossop

(personal opinion)