Some distance to go

13 July 2020

There is no new normal yet, but tough choices are being made across the entire sector as governments and industry discuss the next phase of the pandemic. Sam Setter’s Limeblast looks at the actions defining the sector’s future and whether fashion is still on people’s minds.

Firstly, congratulations to APLF for taking the difficult but right decision to cancel APLF 2020 and go for a fresh start with APLF 2021 at its traditional March timing. PALF 2020 has followed the same reasoning of ‘better a great fair in 2021 than a shadow of a fair in 2020’. I am sure that the organisers of other fairs further on this year will make the same considerations. Business will come back to normal, but we need to shake off the negative psychological and economic burden of 2020. As tough as it may be, and as much as businesses want to come back on line, I believe that an exhibition, any exhibition, makes little or no sense in 2020.

Elsewhere, governments are doing their utmost, at least on paper, to keep the economy alive, but what will happen in reality when the floodgates are opened is anybody’s guess. Right now, the leather industry has restarted in many countries and, from what I understand, tanneries are receiving new orders. To what extent these orders will contribute to the well-being of the tanneries, we simply don’t know yet. What we have no idea of is whether consumers will prioritise fashion for their end of lockdown shopping and whether leather articles will be among those priorities.

On reflection

Industries were stopped, tanneries and leather goods manufacturers had their workers and staff at home, and productions was lying idle. Hides have been dumped by slaughterhouses all over the world, because there were no buyers and probably now there are not sufficient buyers to create a demand that covers the production.

Stephen Sothmann of the Leather & Hide Council of America told me that big packers that produce good quality hide have, at the moment, sufficient storage for their hides that remain unsold, whereas small packers or those producers with lower-quality hides have to send them for destruction as they do not have the facilities for conservation and storage. In the US, slaughterhouses have to pay $3–10 per hide to dump them in a responsible way and where there is no environmental risk.

Packers in the US are said to have legally dumped some five million hides in 2019. From elsewhere, I have seen a video, which I believe is in a South American country, of a truck dumping a huge load of fresh hides into an unprotected landfill, dug out in some grassland. I can’t understand how, in the 21st century, there are still industrialists who don’t care a bit about the environment and hence contribute to the bad image some organisations want to generalise on our industry. Forgive me, but such industrialists perpetrating this kind of crime are morons and deserve a prison sentence.

We need to rally. The world is still in a partial lockdown, and rather than getting bored or being overloaded with constant video conferences and seminars, there are other useful things one can do. This is the moment when tanneries are not overloaded with orders and close to their production capacity, so they can do non-essential maintenance, get factories back into shape, and make plans for the future in terms of adapting to the new situation that will certainly emerge after the lockdown and the next phase. Industry and commerce will never be the same as before Covid-19 came out to ruin our lives, but we must try to turn this misery into a positive future.

Adapt and thrive

Survival is the first priority for all companies, but for all to survive might realistically be challenging. Some companies may choose to gracefully withdraw from the game for a variety of reasons; others may be forced to withdraw from the battle. I think that we are going to face the proverbial survival of the fittest situation, whether we like it or not. But a company can influence the outcome of this battle by thinking ahead and preparing itself, by thinking out of the box and upgrading for the future. Sustainability, quality consistency and cost savings are key indicators.

“Some companies may choose to gracefully withdraw from the game for a variety of reasons; others may be forced to withdraw from the battle.”

The coronavirus may have triggered a fastforward situation of what may have been an industrial evolution in our sector. Over the past decade, the leather industry has changed dramatically. Many of the old traditional tanneries of the post-Second World War self-made era have closed because they either did not want or were unable to conform to a less artisanal and more industrial approach to conduct their business. Those that remained in business did so because they focused on other horizons like the sustainable use of chemicals, corporate social responsibility and quality control, for example.

This had the result that, with a few exceptions, the progressive companies grew and attracted more clients. The same may happen in the post-Covid-19 period. Some tanneries will close, others will progress and incorporate the business that the closed tanneries have left unattended. Logically, there is no formula for how best to benefit from the new situation, but one thing is sure – those tanneries and shoe factories that are open to innovation will have an advantage, and will ultimately come out better than before the virus broke out.

Then we have another problem

Our industry strongly depends on fashion and, with the lockdown applied in most countries in the world, nobody has been shopping for the latest items. Online sales are steady, but I wonder how much was actually sold, and if the volume of online sales compares in any way to the overall 2019 sales during the same period. And how will this work out when businesses and shops open again? Will the first thing on people’s minds be to go out to purchase the latest fashion? And I wonder if at this point there actually is something called ‘latest fashion’, apart from face masks. During the lockdown, whether partial or total, depending on the countries, sales have not moved and hence the 2020 spring fashion north of the equator and the autumn fashion south is in large part unsold.

With the lockdown being softened step by step, the northern hemisphere will enter the summer season and in the south, we look at the winter. Fashion designers are one year ahead of the consumers, and presently working for their 2021 spring and autumn collections. Interestingly, when you listen to various interviews of leather goods producers, they are eager to get back to work, and none of those that I have heard mentioned anything about not having orders. So we should assume that there are orders, but where does that put the tanneries? Tanneries are eager to start production again and, in reality, are in the lower-risk group. Tannery workers are never operating in big groups, but rather always at a distance from one another, so we can imagine that, after production has resumed, at least in tanneries there could possibly be no second wave of infections.

One can write about Covid-19 as much as one wants and there is always more to consider or write about. The important thing is to have a positive attitude and think in a constructive way.

Leather is piling up and its place in the fashion market for upcoming seasons is unknown due to the lockdown.

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