Now we know

Peter LaightI always wondered who went round defacing the posters I put up for my successful campaign for election as President of the Students Union at Leeds University back in 1968, but now we know. But in his excellent talk to the UK SLTC last week Dr Peter Laight who was my contemporary at Leeds let the cat out of the bag. Reminding us of how the leather industry used to look like in those days he took us through a little reminiscence of how my campaign based on “change, progress and responsibility” evolved in sex, drugs and rock and roll – along with thrift, blood and haggis!

Peter spoke to a packed house and certainly the largest audience I remember at the University for a cold November meeting. Lots of students were present and they took a full part in questions which were curtailed when the Chairman decided we had run well over time.

In comparing the UK industry from 1968 to today Peter had estimated that tanners had fallen from about 2000 down to 20, some of which are quite small. He skimmed over some of the reasons for this decline and then looked at what the UK brand leather might look like today, providing a mix of opposing adjectives to help the audience along although he had some strong personal opinions which had to be factored in. He also discussed uses and perceptions of leather which interlinked neatly with the research being done at University by Anca Roberts on leather and subjectivity,

But Peter had an argument on how a new segmentation might help maintain and develop the industry in the UK, or at least parts of it. This was to go back to do the days of tanners and curriers or perhaps more like the relation of tanners and glovers in the days before the first world war.

Changing the industry segmentation

One organisation would be responsible for tanning up top crust and another would then take it forward to the finished article. Perhaps even in the UK the farmer or the abattoir would do stage one. Peter’s own work with advanced digital printing he argued has a roll to play here as it can now do solid colours as well as individualisation of effects. He is scaling up to small factory size in early 2009 and hopefully will site his plant in Northampton where the University could buy some time for students to work with it. He argued that some dark colours create a leather in which the dye is up to 15% of the dry weight of the leather.

The system works most efficiently with cut components hence the value of splitting the cow to consumer at the crust stage, having made a simple sustainable crust. Work on the post crust operations is going on in Florida for Nike and for the US upholstery trade. Peter talked of a $0.75 price point per foot but wanted to be evasive as the price really had to be seen in the context of the total value chain in which may other conventional costs might be eliminated and specific extra added value provided to the final consumer.

It is a fascinating and feasible approach which certainly had the audience sitting up. Digital dyeing and finishing may not be for everyone but it has at least been proven. The last time I remember a shoe company starting from crust as a strategy was in the 1980s at ECCO in Portugal with the Multimac dyeing machine which was very hard to make to work. Remember it? United States Patent 4763370 filed in 1986. A good idea that did not work and destroyed a strategy. So ECCO worked from blue and then in the 1990s from raw, which is essentially what they still do today.

Mike Redwood

25th November 2008

Same time next year: the trials of the trade show

It is only when you leave a trade fair that you truly realise whom you have missed. During the fair itself you concentrate intensely on meeting certain “targets” and are delighted with the additional serendipitous encounters that occur so that it is on the flight home that you start adding up the list of the missing.

The recent Lineapelle and Tanning-Tech had more gaps than most. Some were obvious since Tanning-Tech was down to just two halls one for chemicals companies and the other machines, but the chemicals in particular were missing the majors, even some of the Italian majors.

Some of those not showing attended the meeting the day before on Reach and Innovation to which for some reason the UoN did not get an invite despite our obvious involvement, especially via the new Leather Futures Research Group and others walked the show with the little “wheelie” in tow. Perhaps some of the chemical companies were glad to be scarce as they have spent 18 difficult months trying to get prices up to recover lost margin only to find that many of the sectors are on short time and sending containers back.

So Bologna this year was less about new leathers and ideas and more about trying to assess how life is going to look in 2009. Currencies, raw material prices, customer volumes and the look of the balance sheet are the things that matter today.

For the University there are some different issues. Collecting missing alumni and getting the “centenary list” and potential sponsors sorted were the priority. The list is now growing long and the first bookings have been made for the July weekend in Northampton and London.

So while the Lineapelle show remains frustrating and the trade climate confusing, Bologna remains a lovely city and 2009 an exciting year in prospect.

One major aspect that arises out of recession is the importance of innovation. As such the Leather Futures Research Group may have been setup at just the right time. Innovative leathers with sound features and benefits, especially with a properly supported environmental story, are what matters now, and will keep the industry from becoming a commodity.

So Sanotan from Incusa and some of the crafted leathers from Borge are among the items to look for. We are working now on the major task of membership of the LFRG and setting out a timetable to have the total concept of the LFRG in place for 2009. Certainly our first research project will have relevance to tanners like Incusa and Borge and their customers, and hopefully many others as well

Michael Redwood

7th November 2008