Speech at Opening of the 30th IULTCS Congress in Beijing, China

Elton Hurlow has long had a good understanding of the issues in the leather industry. This is his speech at the opening of the IULTCS which has just started in Beijing:…………..

Members of the IULTCS, Delegates, Honorary Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Leather as a Component Brand

It is my distinct honour to address you at the opening of this week’s grand celebration of the science and technology that surrounds the making of leather. Our industry takes a renewable natural raw material – which comes to us as another industry’s waste by-product – and we turn it into a durable, aesthetically pleasing, and versatile structural material highly valued by leading brands of consumer articles. Our secret is that we have the privilege of working with one of natures most unique materials – collagen. Collagen comes to us in the form of twisted triple helical strands, which we then purify and build upon that framework. Our industry at once resolves a disposal problem and simultaneously creates a highly valued and useful product. We should actually use the word intermediate product as leather is typically a component of what the consumer buys. I suggest we describe leather as a component brand, as leather is the identifier of value. At retail, sales people always refer to their article as a leather jacket, a leather sofa, a leather shoe, or a car with leather interior. They add the word leather because it evokes a favourable emotional response in the mind of the consumer – it elicits feelings of aesthetic pleasure, it appeals to the visual, tactile & olfactory senses. The mind conjures expectations of performance and durability, and there is an overwhelming sense of intrinsic value. What a wonderful industry we work in, and this week we are here to celebrate the global knowledge surrounding collagen and its transformation into the component brand “leather“.

Value Chain Issues

Over the last two years, I have reflected on my concerns surrounding two important aspects of the leather value chain. One is the Identity of leather and the second is the Image of the industry. Let me add that my concerns are NOT unique and are shared by other individuals and organizations involved in the leather industry.

1) Let’s look first at the “Identity of Leather“:

As scientists, we are uniquely qualified to answer the question: “What is leather?” I think we also need to reflect on the question: “What is NOT leather?” For what is leather, how it is labelled, and how it is understood at point of retail goes to the very heart of what it takes to maintain leather’s fundamental value. You just have to walk into any department store today to understand that leather is under threat by “What is NOT leather”. Substitutes add the word leather to elevate perceived value in the eye of the unwary consumer using terms “synthetic leather”, “leather-like”, “faux-leather”, “composite leather” etc. These are not leather. Also, leathers of poor quality, those only made “good enough for purpose” or “to price point” also devalue the component brand by exhibiting poor performance and can result in a negative consumer experience.

So what can we do about it?

I suggest the first point is awareness. As technical individuals and as an organization we can offer support to those agencies such as ICT, Cotance, national bodies such as the CLIA that are working to differentiate leathers by implementing labelling and identification standards. Our institutes can also do research and publish work on re-cycling, sustainability, renewability and the other positive contributions of the leather industry. As scientists, we can clearly identify and should communicate the unique performance properties of leather. We must support high leather standards. We should celebrate those who excel and recognize their achievements. We should support those who work to raise the perceived value of leather and protect its unique and valued identity in the minds of end consumers.

2)Let’s talk briefly now about the “Image of the Industry“:

The image of the global tanning industry can be improved, especially with regard to pollution and environmental sustainability. It is not just from a moral and ethical viewpoint that we need to be good stewards of the environment, but a business case can also be made for sustainability in manufacturing. The technology exists to manufacture leather in a clean and environmentally sound way. Many companies do. But the actions of a few can override the good behaviour of many.

To improve our record will take concerted actions of individuals, organizations, and, because of the costs this involve, it will most likely take pressure from governments and regulators and we hope will include the support of brand conscious retail. Implementation of minimum standards and attainment of best practice guidelines takes time, money and effort. The IULTCS and its members can assist with continued research, technical support, knowledge transfer, and efforts aimed at benchmarking and recognition of those who do succeed in running clean operations. There are in fact many positive examples of this happening worldwide. The IULTCS needs to support these efforts.

A positive and cleaner image is also important to entice talented young people to study leather, and join our industry. We should also recognize those leather training organizations that have programs in place to educate young fashion designers and stylists about the wonderful story of genuine leather, its unique performance and aesthetic properties, and how to work with it.

Now, to the IDENTITY of Leather and the IMAGE of the Industry, I am going to add INNOVATION in leather making.

3)”Innovation in Leather making“:

Innovation comes in different forms. It is not always the strong forces of “creative destruction” that can rapidly overturn the old ways and herald in the new. In my 25 years of leather industry experience, innovation has typically been incremental and adopted slowly. Machinery operates today on pretty much the same basic principles as two decades ago; but small design changes, introduction of electronics and computerized controls have resulted in great improvements. Chemical principles of making leather are essentially the same as years past; but the introduction of new products such as polymeric lubricants, stucco, new finishing technologies, have improved efficiency and performance. We have also seen improvements in waste treatment methods, tanning recipes, work practices, handling methods – these are all examples of continued creativity and innovation in the leather industry. The IULTCS this week will celebrate innovative solutions to problems, new ideas will come from lectures and personal interactions, and better understanding of our working materials and how to do things will evolve. Innovation drives efficiency, solves problems and opens new markets.

The IULTCS and its represented members are uniquely qualified to make major contributions in the area of Innovation, and this is the main reason we are here this week.

Beijing 0ctober 2009

Madam Zhang, Mr Su, Prof. Shi Bi and the rest of the organizing committee, we thank you for your hard work in preparation for this Olympics of leather technology. There is much significance surrounding this 30th IULTCS Global Congress. The first IULTCS Congress was held 60 years ago in Paris in 1949. During the 110-year history of our Union, this is only the second time that an IULTCS Congress will be held in Asia, and the first time in China. Today, China is a global leader in the production of leather, and her scientists and technicians make significant contributions toward the research and development of new technologies for leather manufacture. I ask that we focus this week on what I believe are three very important needs of our industry:

  • The Identity of Leather,
  • The Image of our Industry,
  • And Innovation in the leather making process

This is important to maintain value in our industry. Thank you.

Elton Hurlow

President – IULTCSOctober 2009

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