Getting it right by degrees

Roy Thomson with Rachel Garwood
Roy Thomson with Rachel Garwood

Yesterday the leather degrees were awarded by the University of Northampton. Despite all the changes in Higher Education in the UK as government tries to work out how to manage costs and the future of skills and employment leather appears to be retaining its importance.

Leather, and to it we must add the University skills in fashion, design, waste management etc., has a number of key advantages for these difficult times:

  • we have good contacts with industry in the UK and overseas
  • leather graduates are highly employable
  • our links extend to the entire supply chain through brands and retail and into many exciting sectors – luxury, auto, footwear and fashion.
  • there are some really valuable research opportunities.

So seeing graduates coming forward who have shown outstanding skills in study such as Leela Pamidimukkala coming forward to receive their degrees is an important aspect in our fast changing world.

Apart from Leela and his other colleagues receiving degrees and diplomas we had two other graduates of note yesterday. First was Roy Thomson who received his doctorate based on his studies on the conservation of leather. Roy for many of us is remembered from his days at Strong and Fisher, and it is quite fantastic that he has been able to follow that with a long and fulfilling period as Director of the Leather Conservation Centre which although not formally part of the University is based on Campus just behind the Leathersellers Centre. As a great leather man having retired from the LCC he was motivated to continue his interest in leather by working on a well deserved PhD. Roy deserves all our congratulations.

Mauro and Yvonne Magnaguagno and their family
Mauro and Yvonne Magnaguagno and their family

Our other graduate is Mauro Magnaguagno on whom was conferred an Honorary Doctorate. These days Universities appear to seek out minor celebrities for their degree ceremonies so they can catch quick headlines in the press. But this demeans the value of Honorary Degrees. On the other hand Mauro Magnaguagno is perhaps a perfect example of why and how Honorary Degrees are such a wonderful tool with which to recognise contributions to industry and society.

Mauro is the Director of the TFL Academy in Arzignano in Italy. He instigated and has maintained a relationship with us at Northampton since 2002. A trip to Arzignano with study time with Mauro associated with tannery and machinery company visits in the local leather cluster has become an established part of our teaching. In addition through all this we have started to have a steady stream of students from northern Italy coming onto Northampton full time courses. So while Mauro has through his career made a major contribution to the development of the leather industry in general he has made a huge difference to the quality and experience of leather teaching in Northampton. Rarely has an honorary degree been better deserved.

So all at Northampton we’re delighted that Mauro and his family were with us this week. We are proud of our international links, proud of our industry involvement and no one exemplifies this better than Mauro.

20th July 2012

Made in Britain

It is July and I am in Germany at Lake Constance. For a decade or so I’ve made the journey to mix holiday at one of our favourite little hotels with a visit to the Outdoors Show at Friedrichshafen. It has never let me down. If you bring, or hire, a bicycle you can enjoy fantastic Lake side rides and mix them with ferry trips to Switzerland or Austria if you want to go further afield.

The Show itself always delivers. Innovations, new ideas and approaches, thoughtful actions related to the environment and sustainability, clever branding and a real dynamic makes it all a very vibrant experience compared to most other fairs.

And who did I walk into this year but Brooks leather saddles! Still made in Britain and expanding and developing in the 21st century after doing so well in large parts of both the 19th and 20th. But of course not all of the 20th century was good to it; and it is now an Italian owner who is driving it on. One who is trawling the archives and willing to link with British design students for saddle bags and other items suited to the Brand. One who understands heritage branding in a modern world, the consumer experience linked to the story.

This is a moment when with rising costs in Asia and concern at the various impacts of transportation implied in some of the aspects of globalisation that we believe elements of manufacture can return to Europe and the UK. This includes footwear, gloves and leather goods as well as a lot of fashion. A mix of what might be called “time zone” manufacturing linked to great design and knowledge.

Yet why is it that it is foreign companies that are needed to drive forward great brands like Brooks and Church’s? Even the much younger Mulberry needed a clever lady from Singapore to get it back on a growth track balancing great product with clever marketing. And now Mulberry are building another UK production plant.

In the leather trade 100 years ago, before chrome tanning, the UK was the world leader. Despite a British Company, Booths, being instrumental in getting chrome tanning into the world market the UK lost its place and never looked likely to get it back. We now have only three world class companies plus a number of boutique plants, albeit excellent in their own way.

UK manufacturing has shown itself skilful at growing smaller and then closing. I know, I share part of the guilt. I’ve been hands on in closing three fine old brands and on the Board when we took tough decisions about many others.

As I look back much of this was issues of family businesses and family business mentality. Today as I look at Clarks and ECCO I find myself thinking that family businesses can be the best, and I worry as VF and Wolverine gobble up the world of the “virtual” shoemaking brands.

Some of what happened was self managed consolidation and a way for businesses, and families, to escape from difficult city centre sites and rising environmental costs. It is just hard to see that Italy retained so much while Northern Europe almost totally closed down.

Even towards the end we managed to lose some great brand names – Connolly, Pearce, Pebody – whose reputations spread across the globe. Even today I don’t think we’d let that happen – or at least the Indians, Chinese or Italians wouldn’t.

Somehow we lost confidence in our ability to make things and recognition of the value of what we have achieved in the past. There is a message in all this that links into knowledge. It’s knowledge that gives us confidence in our manufacturing skills. It’s knowledge that lets us identify the value of companies in terms of more than just bricks and mortar.

When Nestlé bought Rowntrees back in 1988 they paid 5 times the value of the book assets. It was not the manufacturing capacity they were after but the name and reputation. So closing a company like Connolly and ignoring those values was a grave mistake.

Now we have in the UK a number of opportunities.

  • building up all the companies that we have managed to retain. Scottish and Pittards appear to be leading the way but all the “boutique” plants should also be able to participate.
  • look at helping bring back more leather product production to the UK – footwear and leathergoods especially – via a mix of automated technology, additive manufacturing and pure craftsmanship
  • helping start ups in these latter areas
  • considering the wisdom of doing more with UK raw material given both its quality and the current value in knowing the origin of things.

I am a globalist and like the concept of BMW making Minis in the UK for the whole world rather than fighting for manufacturing just to make and keep in Britain. But now is certainly the moment to start using our skills and education to do a lot more in leather at all levels in the UK

Mike Redwood
15th July 2012

Puma talks about leather

Recently in the Financial Times an article related to the Rio+20 Summit quoted Puma as saying that it would like to stop using leather. Puma is not the first company to talk about discontinuing using leather as a result of its supposed poor carbon footprint. We have heard such comments from Timberland and from Pentland industries.

Of course the problem is not the leather but the animal, in particularly the cow. The problem with the cow is that eats and it belches.  If it eats grain then a lot of energy is used in growing that grain, and if it belches what comes out includes a lot of methane which is accepted as environmentally a very bad greenhouse gas.

This raises a number of questions.  Is the data correct is a simple one and anyway is it fair to blame leather for issues related to the animal? Only a tiny minority in the world argue that we should not eat meat, although increasing numbers do suggest that we should limit the amount. While we do eat meat and drink milk we end up with hides, and these hides may be used for leather, for other things or thrown away. However we view it hides are a bi-product which has to be dealt with.

Over time it has become clear that leather is one of the best ways to deal with this bi-product. It is a clearly a bi-product based on the definition that it is very low in value compared to the main element, and it requires significant added processing to be made useful. Over history we have had our environmental issues related to tanning – being careless with waste materials, using too much water and too much energy – but these have largely been addressed and are subject to continued improvement by the best tanners in the world. As a result leather is an elegant solution to the management of a bi-product retaining for the use of society a durable, technically clever natural material with multiple end uses and outstanding characteristics.

Examined this way it should be the case that when entering the tannery the hide or skin should be classed as carbon neutral rather than being condemned because of the cow and its methane. It is too glib just to say leather is bad because of cattle. In his influential book “How bad are bananas” Mike Berners-Lee tells us that about half the carbon footprint of footwear is down to materials and he puts leather shoes as having almost double the carbon footprint of synthetic.  He explains this on the basis of the “carbon intensity of cattle farming”.  So the leather which should be at worst neutral is made to look artificially worse than a synthetic material that uses up non renewable resources. Where is the logic here?

Furthermore, much of the science of methane and cattle has not been fully evaluated as there is no obvious way to measure how much methane cows expel during a typical days grazing, hence we currently have a new government project in the UK to use lasers to measure how much is in the air and how fast it is flowing.  The underlying arguments here came from a five year old FAO report called Livestocks Long Shadow which has become the definitive and much quoted reference to make cattle rearing look as negative for society as possible.  This report has never been properly challenged although there is quite a bit of evidence that the calculations used involved stacking up and adding together every worst case element that could be found. It is certainly not the objective peer reviewed analysis that anyone should be forming their opinion upon.

It is also quite clear that there is an enormous difference between grain fed and pasture fed cattle with long term pasture being such a good carbon sink as to more than negate any methane put in the air.  There is also a lot of evidence that long term grassland contains herbs and other plants which reduce the methane emissions of cattle and we have learned scientists studying species-rich grassland in Australia in 2009 found that healthy soil bacteria can absorb far more methane from the air than cows emit. Indeed the well known agriculturist Graham Harvey argues in his well researched book “The Carbon Fields” that grassland soils “not only offer food security, they could – if we chose to use them – save the planet”.

Whatever the angle you look at it is premature to use the argument about cattle to condemn all meat and entirely wrong to use it to condemn leather. Leather is not a C02 liability it is a renewable resource which serves society and the planet exceptionally well and should be celebrated as such.

Michael Redwood
26th June 2012