‘Leather – Naturally!’

16 November 2009

The leather trade is used to taking knocks. Not just because of the recession but the relentless pursuit by pressure groups from animal rights to extreme environmentalists. The shock of the Amazon report from Greenpeace was perhaps the final indicator that all is not well with our industry. We leather people have never worried too much. Consumers love leather and well over 95% is a by-product of the meat and dairy industry. What is more, historically leather has had no viable substitutes in many of its major end uses. Now that high performance textiles, faux leather, luxury fabrics and plastics are so good, leather can be replaced. Consequently the industry needs to find a new powerful voice. Failure to do so will condemn leather to being a mass produced low priced commodity.

Sometimes we have been our own worst enemy. Spurious environmental claims – ‘Greenwash’ – pervade the industry and have given a vocabulary to synthetics saying they do not use ‘toxic additives’ nor come with the ‘ethical considerations that arise from using a material derived from livestock’. The consumer is confused and can no longer be relied on to understand the underlying values of leather.
The industry urgently needs a global campaign to both defend and promote leather as a luxury and technical material of the highest quality. During ad hoc discussions at this year’s Hong Kong Spring APLF Show and again in Shanghai at ACLE, the APLF organisers floated the idea that they would consider supporting such an initiative. The support of the industry around the world needs to be garnered in some way so that the sustainable value of leather will be communicated to designers through to brand owners – from manufacturers to the retailer and ultimately to the consumer. Evidence would be provided to help them judge and understand what makes quality in leather and how it should be assessed, sold, used and looked after. Scientifically supported documentation would be available to counter the many negative claims made about leather, its manufacture and its disposal.
Currently the industry is fragmented in terms of production types and geography. It is also at different stages of development in terms of quality and enforcement of environmental regulations. So uniting is not easy. Yet this is a global challenge intended to raise the image of leather in the mind of the consumer; to make them think of leather naturally as the material of choice for footwear, handbags, upholstery and many other niche sectors from saddlery to sports equipment. And, of course, clothing which is returning strongly to fashion. With such an umbrella campaign individual groups or countries would still be encouraged to market their differentiated position.
If leather can become the unaided top of mind material of choice then the industry will survive both the onslaught of alternative materials and the many, mostly false, claims being made against it.
The ‘Leather-Naturally!’ initiative is to be welcomed, requires and offers the opportunity for interested key players to meet, discuss and reach conclusions leading to decisive action. Moral and financial support will be needed with much interaction expected prior to the Industry Focus meeting to be held in tandem with the March 2010 APLF events in Hong Kong.
The leather industry needs and the product deserves success for ‘Leather Naturally!’

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