The simplest way to describe the task set for LeatherNaturally! is to “defend and promote leather”. These are tasks that an industry should not outsource to an industry body of any sort, new or old, and say “job done". They have to be embedded in what everyone does and says both as companies and as individuals.
Yet there is wisdom in coming together to combine skills to better explain the themes, to be able to react quickly and with impact as events arise and to build synergies in an industry noted since the beginnings of time as being fragmented In so many ways. Indeed geographical division, whether we tan hides or skins, whether we make shoe leather or other leathers such as garment or upholstery, whether we are light leather tanners or heavy leather producers, or wet blue producers or fancy leather finishers are the sort of separations that have made it hard to work together.
One of the big issues for the whole world has to be the failure of our institutions to stay relevant. Structures, regulations, funding sources and geographic boundaries all work against them. From the UN through the IMF to National Governments the institutions and the people have moved apart for many reasons. So we must evolve to keep in touch with our customers and consequently, despite the fragmented nature of all things to do with leather, the Leather Working Group, LeatherNaturally! and other initiatives like the Tannery of the Future are all finding a place. Some may serve a temporary function while some may prove to be lasting but all are currently vital to keep leather at the forefront and properly understood. If leather ends up as a commodity we will only be able to blame ourselves.
Since we began things have changed. Initially all the focus was on “defence” as it was the impression going out via social media that everything to do with leather somehow “poisonous” to the planet. Our members were shocked by the ferocity of this activity and the degree of penetration it had achieved. It was not uniform across the world with some countries such as France indicating that leather was better understood by their consumers than our researches in the US and the rest of the world suggested. Yet further research in by some of our members in China has shown that in many segments the Chinese see leather less as a natural material than a prestigious one, and a perfect leather is one which looks like plastic. This is a worry for tanners as plastics improve their touch and look how can we differentiate leather?
A further unpublished study by one of our automotive members suggested that even in Germany a majority of young people between 12 and 18 did not recognise that leather came from cows, a result which has been met with incredulity in the industry. Yet even if the data is unsupported we do know that rapid urbanisation around the world means that many children do not see live cattle until well into their teens. Hence we have become accustomed to comments around the theme that milk comes from supermarkets not cows.
Nevertheless during our early period most of our members were less worried about consumers and changing attitudes than they were about the falsehoods being circulated against leather and most of our time was dedicated to correcting those. This area is discussed elsewhere but two points stood out to take away. First the animal rights groups we found to be “absolutists” and there was no chance of changing their minds, while second most of the environmental NGOs be they environmental or anti business were open to rational discussion.
As we look at the situation in 2016 things have changed. Work needs to continue to stop errors and miss-truths being passed around about leather, but the consumer issue has started to come to the fore and with it a rise in what can only be called dishonest marketing by plastics passing themselves off as leather.
So we have a growing number of consumers around the world whose knowledge of nature, the origin of natural materials and especially leather is diminishing every few years and fossil fuel materials being heavily promoted as better, often using the term “leather” illegally or deliberately to confuse. The issue of mixing leather with plastics in an automobile and implying everything is leather ingrowing example of what is being called “decontenting”.
Hence our management group is committed to moving us much more towards conversations with consumers rather than just a body reacting against negative press. This requires us to reconsider our promotional language as we need to move beyond very industrial comments like “sustainable material” so terms much more consumer minded are required. One idea was put forward at the APLF Hong Kong Sow by Jon Clark which was “Nature’s Perfect Wrapper” which offers a great start.
This offers a great opportunity for members and friends to get their creatively minded colleagues thinking of additional or alternate phrases and descriptions. While one short and clear one will be chosen as the primary phrase all good suggestions will likely end up used in other areas.
Getting the messaging right is vital so this is important.