Paris in September

Paris in September was for many decades an essential part of life in the leather industry. A trip to the Semaine du Cuir, the world’s most important leather show, was often written into a technician’s contract, while those working overseas always ensured their annual trip home to Europe coincided with the necessary trip to Paris. The chemical industry wined and dined you, occasionally you bought a machine, and you checked the market for that “new job”. All sorts of company personnel – from chief executives who rarely spoke to customers through finance directors found excuses to attend and use up huge proportions of the annual marketing budget on this one event.

Now the delightful little show Le Cuir à Paris has started to build itself an excellent reputation and a small number of European tanners use it to meet designers from top luxury brands. As a small show it is much easier to manage than Lineapelle where everything is so overwhelming that many designers only look at the same old companies every time. It also sits alongside Premier Vision and Mod’amont which take place at the same time at Paris Nord Villepinte. The only British exhibitors were L.H.Nichols of Yeovil.

This year the day before the show was taken up by the most unusual International Leather Forum, put on for the first time by the IULTCS and intended to bring together the top 100 people they could find in the leather industry from raw to retail. It was an excellent day although it must be said that most value was achieved in the morning sessions on education and research whereas the afternoon on marketing and crisis management rather lost its way.

The heavy emphasis on tanners getting updated with short courses came across as did the need for modular education so that finance and marketing people could learn something of leather. Both of these fit with the evolution of courses at the BSLT in Northampton and with the increasing number of enquiries and bookings being achieved. Cooperation between the schools is important and was encouraged, while large quantities of practical work were considered necessary. It is timely that the tannery in the BSLT is now being upgraded.

Getting research together is going to be much harder as funding keeps getting in the way. There is no evidence that tanners or chemical companies will fund research so every institution is on its own to fight for cash to pay for researchers and needed kit. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

Protectionism on the agenda

The sessions on marketing missed the mark somehow, and we kept seeing issues of protectionism being raised, with countries like Brazil, Argentina, India and Pakistan – most of whom were represented – being the targets along with China. I struggle a bit with this as major European companies like CIBA and Philips and nearly all the US economy got going 100 years ago through the most aggressive protectionism and sometimes government help to let them steal patents from others. To some degree this demand for the perfect level playing equates with telling the Middle East we can give it perfect democracy. It may sound good but it is not realistic.

Allied to this is a date to note if you are in France on the 25th October. You will discover it is Leather Day and the French industry has prepared some print and even TV advertisements to support this. I am not at all convinced that the industry has the finances for this to be meaningful or is able to consistently replicate the concept in other countries. I am a fan of good PR, and for leather supporting this with sound science to take our case to the consumer and the brands be it about CrVI, Reach, kangaroo or seal skin tanning. And I think the industry has to deal with those promoting “chrome free” and “organic” as good while chrome leather gets improperly attacked. At least with chrome we know what we are dealing with and can handle it – many of the others are still somewhat unknown or have already been shown to have serious issues. Each tannage should be promoted on its own positive attributes, and not marketed by creating improper fear in what has been a good and effective method of leather making for the last century.

Mike Redwood

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Throwing our raw material away

Considering that for every 1000Kg of raw material we process in the tannery more than half gets thrown away as solid or liquid waste it is perhaps surprising that Cotance estimate this to cost only 5% of the total cost of production. Even so low margins in the industry means that many tanners around the world, especially in China, cheat by either not having or choosing not to operate an effluent treatment plant.

We (Dr Mark Wilkinson and I) are in the University of Sichuan discussing this with a group of about fifty fourth year leather students. The workshop is in English and the students seem quite capable of grasping what is being said and contributing. From formaldehyde to soaking enzymes language appeared no barrier, and they are just as well informed when we speak of world populations and global warming.

Sichuan is a large province in south west China bordering on Tibet. It is a big area for tanning and a major zone for pigskins. Increasingly the shoe industry is viewing the west as a better location as labour costs rise so Chengdu, the city we are in, now describes itself as the “ladies shoe capital” of the world and no one seems ready to contradict this. Nevertheless Chengdu is better known for the presence of companies like Intel, Microsoft and Lenovo (who make the former IBM computers): and for its Pandas.

Sichuan is one of the prestigious top 100 Universities in China and the leather school is amongst the best in the country. We are looking at closer collaboration with the possibilities of Sichuan students coming to Northampton to enter the final year B.Sc. It looks likely we will see the first students in the 2008-9 session. Tony Covington has been a Visiting Professor at Sichuan for some years and is a member of their academic committee. The experimental tannery is small and as far as we have seen largely based on the wet end with little chance to learn any finishing or machine work.

A high level of research is undertaken as well with about 50 research students but this has achieved limited recognition outside China. We would like to find a way to become involved and help upgrade this with joint work but all will depend on funding mechanisms.

There is no doubt that the University has many friends in Sichuan and we are really hoping to develop these strongly as we enter or centenary celebration year.

Economies of scale

Announcements made at the trade show in Shanghai appear to match our thoughts on what is happening in China right now. The government has made it clear it wants fewer tanneries and bigger ones, with the scale to afford and run proper environmental treatment plants. It also wants them to be away from residential areas, which is difficult for some in South East China where urbanisation is overwhelming the countryside at the speed of an express train.

Certainly China will always be immense in leather but it does mean a bright future for places like Vietnam, India, Pakistan and Brazil if they choose to take it. It also means now could be the moment for Africa. Why have 17% of the world’s raw material and yet only 2% of its industry? Could the next 25 years start to belong to Africa?

Michael Redwood

Chengdu, 12 September 2007