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The leather industry has a future when it cooperates

Release date: 12/17/2018

This article is a translation from the Lederpiel publication.
Egbert Dikkers was interviewed in his role as Chair of the Management Board sharing a view on the leather industry and the importance to join forces to focus on the leather image.
 

  • What is Leather Naturally? Who are the participants in this project? Which are its main goals?
LN is an Association with currently some 55 members with a mixed background in  the Leather industry. Members include Leather manufacturers, national leather organizations, chemical companies, tanneries and Universities. The main goal of Leather Naturally is to inspire the buying public, fashion designers and finished product manufacturers about the use, beauty, versatility and sustainability of Leather. It is important to realize that Leather Naturally does not favor or promote any specific company, country or type of leather. Our focus is on Leather as a material. 
  • What kind of feedback are you getting from the leather industry in this new stage of Leather Naturally?
We are receiving very positive feedback from the Leather Industry! As a result, we have doubled the number of members in 2018 with a growing interest from the industry to invest together in the image of Leather as a unique material. We also got a very good feedback for the crowdfunding of a huge global image campaign for Leather that we intend to start in 2019. We still look for additional funds by the way and hope that the Spanish leather industry will realize the benefit for this.
  • What is current situation of the leather industry? Which is the biggest challenge to the global leather industry?
It is seen that especially shoe Leather is going through a difficult time, mainly due to the fact that shoe producers have been using alternative materials. The biggest challenge for the Leather industry is to keep on doing what it is good at, producing a sustainable material with unique characteristics with craftsmanship and love for the material and how it is made. As an industry we should promote this together and share the beauty of Leather as material to consumers, designers and Leather product manufacturers.  Furthermore, we should keep on improving our industry in the field of responsible production, by sharing best practices like from the Leather Working Group and supporting governments to enforce regulations to stop bad practices in regions that harm the image of Leather. Here is a big responsibility for the Fashion brands as well. They have the power to make a change by using their purchasing power to the benefit of the world.
  • What are the most widespread misunderstandings about leather?
This certainly is that animals are killed for Leather. Leather is in 99% of the cases made from hides and skins that originated from the meat industry as a by-product. Another widespread misunderstanding is that the Leather industry does not care for the well-being of animals. On the contrary! The well-being is of the utmost importance to the Leather industry as this has a direct influence on the quality and the image of Leather. Initiatives like the Leather Working Group have an Animal Welfare Group that specifically focusses on this, while the Responsible Leather Round Table is closely working together with the meat industry to keep on improving in this field.
  • How is leather seen by the consumers?
Leather still has a very good image with consumers. Terms related to leather, often used by consumers include: luxury, touch and feel, strong, repairable and Leather becoming nicer after aging. Regretfully, we also see that especially younger generations, the Millenials and Generation Z have less connection to Leather, so it is important to keep the communication with those generations, so they can learn the main leather attributes and advantages.
  • Why do you think the reputation of leather among younger consumers is not good? How could we change this bad perception?
We do not believe that Leather is having a bad reputation with younger consumers. One of the challenges we face as an industry is that young consumers have less connection to the unique characteristics of Leather. The Leather industry collectively has not focused on keeping the image of Leather alive. Instead we have been sleeping all together, hoping that somebody will do the promotion of Leather in a way that business will continue. We should learn from other materials such as Wool that have had similar challenges. To inform and inspire the industry including consumers, Leather Naturally has an informative website, an industry LinkedIn group and is visible to consumers via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. As mentioned before, just recently, we have shared a draft for a global social media Leather promotion campaign which will be purely targeted to Millenials and Generation Z to stimulate the demand for leather.
  • A popular Italian tanner told us: «The best synthetic material is always cheaper than the worst kind of leather. We have lost the price battle». Do you agree? If we cannot compete with prices, how? 
Yes, we lost the price battle. But we should ask ourselves if we would like to win the battle on price with a unique material like Leather? Leather is not fast fashion to be thrown away after a few times usage. Leather is a unique material with a specific touch, warm feeling, luxury, nicer over time and a product that can be prepared. For many cheaper leather goods, the Leather industry has been trying to hard to make Leather look like plastic. Is it than strange that the Leather buyer is comparing the price of Leather to plastic? The Leather industry should be more proud and more bold about Leather! We are not plastic that is thrown away and often ending up in our Oceans. Leather is a truly sustainable product, from a renewable source, value added through unique characteristics and long lasting!
  • The main leather market is footwear, but the leather shoes consumption is decreasing opposite synthetic footwear. Why does it happen? Can leather compete against materials like polyester or textiles? Does the leather industry have to look for alternative markets? Which ones?
For shoes, many different materials have been developed and replaced Leather at some percentage. Innovation is a key driver for industries to develop. It is up to the Leather industry to develop new features and applications like the HP Laptop that has been covered by Leather to give the laptop a warmer feel, protect it and make it lighter. Or add features that Leather will glow in the dark when driving your car.
  • Is current low price of leather related with the current low reputation of leather?
You could debate lengthy about this question, but again, for most consumers, leather still has a very good reputation, so it should not be seen as the reason for the current low prices. We have seen that the last years, the prices of hides and skins have gone up due to a strong demand from the car upholstery industry. Did this result in prices going up to much, by touching a tipping point where shoe manufacturers have been more open to alternative materials? Hides and skins are a by-product from the meat industry and as such, the number of hides available to the Leather industry not only has a relation with the demand for Leather. 
  • How many does vegan trend affect to leather industry?
There is a growing number of people eating less meat and the number of vegans is said to be growing in some regions of the world. However, with a growing world population the meat consumption is still increasing and thus the offering of hides and skins to produce Leather. Therefore, we should not see this trend as something bad for our industry. What needs to be addressed is the misuse of the word vegan as something that is sustainable. In some cases this is correct, but it should not be assumed all the time. Often, alternative products to leather labelled as “vegan” are mostly originate from synthetics, made from fossil materials (Oil) and mostly ending up in our Oceans or landfills. Luckily, we see more realism coming through understanding that it is important that the facts about alternative materials are transparent and open for the consumer. 
  • What is your opinion about the biofabricated leather? Is it a sustainable alternative? Is it proper leather?
Leather Naturally has an open approach to alternative materials, including biofabricated materials that try to imitate the unique characteristics of Leather. It is funny if you think about it. Many alternative materials try to imitate Leather and try to benefit from the good image that Leather has. But as an industry, we should be aware that Leather can only be called Leather if it originates from an animal hide or skins with the 3 dimensional structure still in tact. It is important for retailers and brands to realize that it is illegal in various countries to name a material Leather if it does not fit the description. Leather is a unique material and we should be proud about this!
  • In spite of recent efforts of leather industry for minimizing the environmental impact, news about polluting rivers or illegal dump are usual. Is leather an environmental-friendly industry? How could tanners optimize the water use?
It is a fact that Leather is not produced sustainably in certain parts of the world. It is up to the industry itself to share best practices to support improvements and set a minimum level. Also here, brands can play a crucial role by stimulating their suppliers to improve their performances. Furthermore local governments have a responsibility to develop and enforce legislation. But yes, the Leather industry in itself is a environmental friendly industry with most of the leather being produced by responsible Leather manufacturers and good auditing schemes in place. These programs have had a huge positive influence on the Leather industry, in many fields including savings in water usage.
  • Recently, several catwalks in Europe have banned leather or fur goods and many high fashion brands have also decided not to use these materials in their collections. What is your opinion about this?
We have seen that some brands and some smaller catwalks have been critical towards the usage of fur and sometimes Leather. We should make a nuance between Leather and fur, as the origin and commercial value of the hides and skins are of a total different dimension. I already explained where the hides and skins are coming from. We have noticed however, that some of the decisions to not promote Leather have been made on wrong statements, mostly coming from arguments that animals are killed and mistreated to the benefit of the Leather industry. As I already explained earlier, this is a misperception and pertinently not true. Leather Naturally considers its task to be transparent about the Leather industry and share the true fact on Leather like on a poster we designed earlier this year. It can be downloaded free of charge.
  • Leather industry goes through an evident crisis (low prices, bad reputation, lacking demand, etc.). Must we get used to this situation or, predictably, is it going to get better sooner or later? Are you optimistic for the future?
Yes, I am optimistic about the future for Leather. But only when the whole Leather industry is going to collaborate. Any one should use its maximum influence and power to improve all parts of the industry or force bad industry performers to go out of this industry. We also urge leather manufacturers, chemical companies, leather goods manufacturers to become a member of Leather Naturally and thus support the image of Leather all together by promoting it worldwide reaching young generations!