Oh come on, not again!

29 March 2010

It has been a couple of years, that I have been saying that the international organisations that are supposed to represent our trade are doing little or nothing. That is not only my opinion, but many share this view, although few say so, but most show their disappointment by withdrawing from associations or withholding contributions to associations. If I remember well I mentioned the good-old-boys clubs which are convening once in a while to discuss matters of interest in one of my columns a couple of years ago.

These meetings lead to nothing. Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and Greenpeace ignorantly attack our trade due to their ignorance not knowing what an important role this industry plays. In fact the big manufacturers immediately bent over backwards to please Greenpeace over the Amazon issue in order not to lose business, without explaining or trying to explain, because Greenpeace has proven that they are not willing to listen to opinions other than theirs, what our industry does and what it stands for. This industry is reactive instead of being proactive!

Allow me to refer to the interview Leather International had with Bulent Hazer (November/December 2009 page x), who is presently president of the International Council of Tanners (ICT). With due respect to Bulent Hazer, whom I unfortunately do not know, this interview fills a whole page but says absolutely nothing. Some of the questions I liked, but it’s the answers were disappointing particularly coming from a person, who should be in a position to inject some energy for change.

Why have the Spanish and Italian tanners withdrawn from ICT? Was a question posed in the interview. It is not because the ICT is so successful, but more likely because they feel that the ICT does not represent them properly. The Spanish and Italian trade associations are pretty strong with a large member basis. Hazer’s answer to the question why the Spanish and Italians are not part of ICT, was that he has a good relationship with Cotance. Isn’t that ducking the issue, a non-answer answer??

According to the ICT, the international contracts are a ‘basis’ for orderly trade. Yes, there we agree, but a ‘basis’ is not a contract, and hence buyers and sellers ignore the ‘orderly basis’ whenever it suits them. It works well when the market is level, but when the market drops, the buyers don’t fulfill their obligations (2008/09 reinforces this) and if the market increases drastically the shippers renegotiate their ‘orderly basis’. A code of conduct doesn’t change anything, because when money talks (big market differences) people listen. Bulent Hazer says that a single commission will be set up to work out a new international contract, by working on the existing ICSHLTA international contracts 6 and 7. WOW! Isn’t that innovative and great! And what about the Spaniards and the Italians? They don’t like nor want the ICSHLTA contract! Do they not count? Developing a new contract takes imagination and a broad basis of approval, which the ICT seems to lack. Neither one side nor the other.

Hazer offers the ICT as a forum to discuss the unwarranted attacks from Peta and Greenpeace, who have no idea of this industry and see only their own agenda. But, dear sir, after you have discussed these attacks in your forum, what are you going to do? Will the forum be able to come to conclusions and base on these conclusions a counter attack, or better a preemptive strike? If you answer ‘yes’, then my question is, why haven’t we heard of anything or seen anything before? All that has happened is that when under attack the big manufacturers have promptly rolled over to get Greenpeace and Peta off their backs fearing that they might lose some precious digits off their bottom line. I agree that the Amazon must be spared at any cost from destruction and I agree that our industry must act responsibly at all levels, but that does not mean that we must accept accusations that are not true and nevertheless kowtow to those accusations.

The biggest achievement of the ICT last year was according to the interviews ‘the agreement of the new ICT code of practice for the labeling and designation of leather in upholstery and the automotive applications, and the promotion of this as a basis for future legislation’. But didn’t Hazer say in the same interview that new codes serve nothing? May I ask how this labeling code will effect the industry? What are the advantages that this code is bringing to the industry. How does it alter the bottom line?

A couple of years ago I said that the ICT should reinvent itself. Sadly it is still walking around in the same circles of the mid 1900’s when things were totally different and the European tanners and traders ruled the waves. If you read the overall text of his interview, Hazer confirms that there is nothing new.

ICT and most trade associations are under-funded and that is one of the reasons why they are not capable of being innovative and effective. They are under-funded because their subscribers have no confidence in their workings and hence refuse to pay a fee. It’s the story of the dog that bites its tail. No money, no results - no results, no contributions. Convincing the Taiwanese and Syrian tanners to join is no achievement. Winning back the Italians and Spaniards would be an achievement and money in the bank, which the Syrians will not bring. I know for a fact that ICT was invited not long ago to join a campaign to promote and defend the leather industry and ICT denied saying ‘we don't want to get involved’. Any comment is superfluous.

New and innovative thinking is the password. I have heard whispers that important and influential people around the leather industry are putting their heads together in order to set up a new international body that will be geared to promote the products of our industry and leather as an entity. Nothing seems to have been defined but the question is being studied and I know for a fact that a steering committee is being set up to get this initiative off the ground.

If any reader wants to participate or be contacted by the committee, you can write to me and I will forward your contacts and suggestions. The people who are behind this idea are very well aware of the fact that they need to generate money, a lot of money, in order to launch a penetrating campaign that will make consumers aware of the global usefulness of leather and the usefulness of our industry. Several very good campaigns have been organised by national associations in France, Italy and Spain, like Real Leather and Vero Cuoio, but they were limited in time and coverage, reaching a relatively small number of consumers. The previous campaigns emphasised the qualities of leather but never addressed the role of the leather industry on a global scale to the end-user. I believe that public awareness of our industry opposed to tree-hugging ideas is very important. Leather needs a positive perception among the general public. Everybody should get involved. Associations of tanners, leather product manufacturers, professional magazines, fairs, NGO’s, governments because all benefit and profit from a positive perception of what leather stands for.

The big problem is where the money should come from. Taking money from a hide merchant or tanner is like plucking feathers from a frog. Associations, with an exception of a few, are without money due to lack of contributions. Big industrial palyers such as Nike, big retailers, major exhibitions and the car industry. These could all be potential main contributors (and organisers) as they make money, have power and they could rally others around them. The fairs could stick their heads together and form a representative nucleus for the industry? Fairs are also PR savvy, something the rest of the trade and associations haven’t a clue about. Compared to the good-old-boys clubs this would like jumping from the Middle Ages to the 21st century. I am pretty sure that in such a new context many associations may jump ship and swim quickly to shore to join this new entity, whatever it may be, as long as it will be capable to represent the industry in a constructive light.

Time will tell.

Sam Setter

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