The Society of Leather (SLTC) held its 121st Annual Conference at the University of Northampton on Saturday last, the 21st April. I think I have been back to attend about one third of all them, so I have seem the gradual decline and growth in phases over time. There is no doubt that the leather industry can get quite moody along with the perceived, or real, state of trade. Sometimes management gets very mean and will not cover expenses and at others it thinks the learning and connections to be gained well worth supporting.
Of course at the same time the quality of the event, in terms of content and attendance, has an impact upon those decisions. This has been apparent in the cycle we have seen in the last decade or so when the conference has recovered so well from a long slow but unremitting decline. During that period the Society moved the event around to get closer to the bigger tanners. In the end it did not work and a retreat to Northampton has ended delighting all parties. Everyone can plan around it with ease and students from the University have access without having to pay expensive hotel accommodation. So numbers, from the UK and overseas, have steadily risen and it looks as though the programme has continued to improve.
This has highlighted the fact that Northampton remains an important centre for leather. When we helped set up the “northamptonshireleather.com”* website ten years ago we quickly found that there were over 110 businesses involved in leather in the region. This includes all making, using, buying, selling, educating, testing, consulting and the like. Some are tiny businesses but quite a number like SATRA at the footwear factories are big employers. Quite quickly the conference and the society regained momentum, to the extent that the AGM after the conference was well attended and had a busy agenda to manage.
History has meant that the UK leather society has from the early days had places like Australia and South Africa within its grouping whereas the general move has been from national associations to join the International Union (IULTCS) directly. It was sad to learn that Australia has now left the UK.
Spreading the scientific discussion
Yet one wonders whether this is not the moment for the SLTC to look outwards and find ways to support and sponsor technical meetings in emerging markets where the leather industry is now starting to grow. On Saturday at least a third of the day was spent looking at minimal standards being presented as a new baseline, for those not connected to the Leather Working Group (LWG) or the Tannery of the Future Tool, to help such plants identify where they must start on introducing appropriate Corporate Social Responsibility. There was concern that some of the standards being presented were far below the accepted levels to which many delegates are already working, and feel have by default now become the minimum the industry should work to.
Would it not be great if such a debate were actually also being held in some of the emerging areas where the issues are arising? What sort of technical debate is going on in Bangladesh where it appears tanners expect the government to do everything, or in Sialkot (Pakistan) where Ivan Král of UNIDO explained that the new tannery zone and effluent plant are being privately funded by the tanners themselves? Or throughout Africa, where the leather industry is in an expansion mode?
Given that the UK has strong historic links (and current links through the University and certain companies) with Africa and many of these other emerging countries would it not be interesting as part of the social responsibility of the SLTC to look at some of these areas not with the old “funding” model of collecting subscriptions, but rather to find a way to make the technical debate more uniform globally? One often goes to international events and listens to well intentioned papers that ignore research done ten or fifteen years prior and that is well past the proof of concept stage. Listening to these being presented as new miracle discoveries feels very wrong.
Part of the problem is that the SLTC has not penetrated deeply and widely enough. The IULTCS is good but does not have a journal, so the technical journals for the industry reside in the UK and US right now, supported by the fact that the UK has the top trade magazines all of which contain a lot of important technical data. When we went with the Master of Leathersellers to Sichuan University in Chengdu a few years ago, Leathersellers paid to have 50 years of the JSLTC bound for their library (the late Philip Rothwell donated his journals for this). This top Chinese University used to have them, but they were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution and not replaced nor kept up to date since.
One wonders how many budding technicians around the world today have access to the Journals on an everyday basis? Should they not be the foundation – online and offline – of every country’s and every sizeable tannery’s technical and research facility. If not, what is the SLTC really for, and what is the value of our Professional Grades awards?
22nd April 2018
* northamptonshireleather.com It would appear that after a couple of years the web site was hijacked into supporting a footwear conference run by a mix of the local community and the University fashion school. As far as I now the conference never happened and the web site was eventually closed. Certainly the web site is not available today and that great work compiling all the company details appears to have been lost.