Presented to Institute of Textiles Centenary Conference Autumn 2010, Manchester
Michael Redwood and Rachel Garwood
Institute for Creative Leather Technologies
School of Science and Technology
The University of Northampton
Leather used to be essential to the functioning of society. It was a ubiquitous material vital for everyday life. From clothing, footwear and gloves through transportation, military activity and many other uses leather was a strategic material.
In recent years with the rise of other materials such as new technical textiles and plastics leather has become more of a luxury item. The manufacturer and the consumer have a choice of materials in most purchases. What is more as an outcome of the rise in consumer power over the last fifteen years, accelerated by the increased use of the Internet, consumer opinion has started to impact directly on the way leather is processed. Increasingly buying a pair of leather shoes constitutes taking an ecological position.
Drawing on ongoing research on why consumers like leather and options for reversible tannages this paper will examine the changes happening in the making process which are now even more driven by consumer power than by legislative compliance.
Key words: leather, footwear, leather goods, consumer power, environmentalism
The reality of recent events
In early 2008 some people in the UK who had bought leather furniture imported from Asia began to get skin problems. It was mostly the UK but some similar problems arose in the USA and France. No one knew why this could be but the one thing that was consistent was that if you sat on these leather sofas you could get a very nasty skin reaction. By August research had shown that the problem had arisen not because of any leather processing error but because small sachets of an anti-mould material called dimethyl fumarate (DMFU of DMF) had been put into the packing for the shipping to the UK. DMFU is not on the EU approved list of anti-mould materials detailed in the European Directive 98/8/CE so even two years later no one seems to know quite how it started to be used or why.
This series of events proved costly in terms of dealing with legal claims from injured consumers and the disposal of contaminated furniture. Yet within three months the problem had been dealt with, the contaminated batches indentified and the situation brought under control. There was considerable press coverage, not helpful to the leather industry, in which the most persistent headline was “toxic leather furniture”.
But in fact the “crisis” was not over. In France in September 2008 shop store staff and consumers began to see the same severe skin problems coming from imported footwear. The skin problems were serious and usually involved some hospitalisation. It was quickly realised that DMF was the problem and because of the previous events with furniture consumers were already educated about this. Many went immediately to their lawyers.
It was discovered that since DMF is volatile and if bags are broken in a storage facility the DMF can pass onto other products in the warehouse very quickly. Consumers, retailers and brands all became very nervous about buying shoes in France made in China. The situation was not helped by the fact there was no accepted test for DMF and no standards. The whole supply chain appeared to contain elements of the problem but it was to prove exceptionally difficult to separate out the good from the bad and bring back confidence. Testing houses were overwhelmed; the French legal system was saturated. From October 2008 until January 2009 25% of all samples tested proved positive and the testing houses had to set rules for opening the samples as they too had staff hospitalised after opening parcels. Of course these samples were from batches about which there was already suspicion, so does not represent the actual market numbers. Yet if you were a brand or a retailer how would you go about recovering confidence? The damage was immense and as the situation came under control in January and February 2009 some companies working in the French market went out of business.
From the French trade and Government action was swift. They informed the European Union in November 2008 and in March of 2009 the European Union had defined the situation via regulation 2009/252/CE with a limit of 0.1mg/kg set. Never had a decision like this been taken so quickly.
How new consumer power is defining activity in the tannery.
Changing consumer attitudes is in no way special to the leather industry; perhaps what is new is that large elements of the leather industry had never considered such trends to be relevant. While there are a number of papers covering these changes for textile and other products studies in leather are few and almost always anecdotal.
Up to the late 1980s testing for most leather products and in particular footwear was only related to durability and the hard wearing qualities of the leather and the products made from it. Often tests on leather were primarily related to its ability to withstand the manufacturing of the product – high temperatures during the application of the sole or extensive stretching during lasting.
Towards the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s the emphasis moved much more to features and benefits. Companies were interested in promoting elements that the consumer would see as adding additional value to make the purchase more attractive and it became a “given” that a product itself would be fit for purpose in all ways.
This coincided with the evolving network society where extended communication tools meant that consumer experiences and opinions about these attractive new elements would quickly be passed around target consumer segments by word of mouth, or more realistically “word of social media”.
Yet this same networked society has created a business environment where brands have been reticent to get involved in “conversations” since it implies loss of brand control. On the other hand pressure groups, or even individuals, can quickly generate high levels of public awareness about issues of all kinds.
All industry has been changed by the realisation that the world population has doubled, indeed tripled in just a few decades while the land mass and other resources for us to live with are static or declining. The textile industry has felt this pressure in cotton alone where the consumption of water and land has created pressure for changes. Be it fibres based on petroleum or from natural materials such as wool or cashmere, or fibres from plants problems have arisen and adaptations have been needed.
It has not always been the case that the lamplighter action recommended by the market leading companies or by NGOs has stood up to scrutiny when subsequent peer reviewed papers have been produced and analysed the larger picture in more details. There is a lot at stake for all participants so many strong views are held and positions taken.
So in looking at this issue from the aspect of the leather industry is not entering a new area, just one which the leather industry itself has not interrogated. The leather industry is a large industry with world trade at well over $100 billion dollars and like textiles it covers every country in the world as a supplier of raw material and a consumer of final product with varying levels of activity between the two. Like textiles the leather industry has seen a total restructuring over the last five decades as the power of Asia in general and China in particular has been exercised on the supply and manufacturing businesses. Over 60% of all leather products are made in China and about 30% of all finished leather.
Yet despite its size the tanning sector of the leather industry is currently made up of small to medium sized family businesses who live in permanent asymmetry with huge beef packers in the USA and Brazil at the one end and equally enormous shoe companies in Asia (such as Yue Yuen Holdings who make over 250 million pairs of shoes alone, before you take in the garment and retails businesses they own) or major brands like Nike, Clarks, and Louis Vuitton.
As a consequence the tanning sector receives less attention than one might expect. In terms of representation and lobbying it is very weak. Consequently there has been almost no research undertaken in this sector that addresses the commercial aspects of consumer thinking related to leather. Yet that does not mean that the industry has been static. There are some fundamental shifts going on within the industry although in the main these have come from external pressures rather than industry led innovation.
At the University of Northampton the various leather industry areas within the School of Science and Technology and the School of the Arts have come together as the Institute for Creative Leather Technologies to combine their skills and knowledge in leather, its raw material, bi-products and end uses. Research has now started to fill in some of the gaps in knowledge and this paper serves to identify how generally perceived shifts towards consumer power are impacting on the way the leather industry conducts its business.
Ongoing Research and industry background
Ongoing research at the University falls into three categories. The first has been about Leather and subjectivity; an exploration of current understandings around leather and leather objects which we will be discussing in this paper. The second has attempted to link consumers’ attitudes to physical measures in leather. The third is trying to understand the view that today’s consumers, especially the younger generations have of leather and the implications that this has for the industry. This is loosely linked to a proposed new global branding project in the leather world currently named LeatherNaturally!
It is fully recognised that leather has been a vital material throughout history with a very diverse range of uses for personal and industrial requirements. From clothing, through footwear to writing materials, carrying materials, armour and all sorts of horse equipment leather was a valuable and essential material for everyday life. Through the centuries new materials were found which could replace leather and it began to concede end uses. For example leather was largely replaced by glass for carrying liquids and wood and metal for boats.
Despite these developments leather was still an essential material for a good number of uses well into the twentieth century but they second half of the century saw a transformation which the industry is just coming to terms with. As a result of the advent of new plastics and synthetic materials, technical textiles and membranes there are now no end uses for which leather is now an absolute requirement. Trainers in plastic and textile materials, cold weather clothing with membranes or textile insulation, plastics for automobile upholstery and luggage all became standard. In 2008 the industry met the first moment when figures definitely showed that less than 50% of the footwear made in the world used leather. The leather industry had become a material which had to fight for its place in the consumer mind.
While traditional older consumers generally hold a positive attitude towards leather this is less certain for younger consumers. Current demographic changes are significant for all industries as the large boomer generation will transition into a large Y generation with quite different attitudes and experiences. The Boomer generation is numerically large and significant and many industries including leather have benefited from the disposal incomes they currently have to spend. By comparison Generation X is quite small in numbers so Generation Y and all the associated names Millennial generation, iPod generation and the like become vital for the future. The rise of the Internet and digital technologies has created an enormous gulf between generations and it is harder to understand their key characteristics than in the past. And this is largely an urban generation reflecting the fact that more than half the world’s population lives in an urban environment. This is the group from which the phrase that “milk comes from the supermarket” rather than cows has arisen, and these beliefs and attitudes are of great significance for the modern leather industry.
The danger is that a generation which has large numbers of people who do not understand the natural connection between agricultural activity and the things they eat, wear and use in everyday life creates significant problems for the leather industry.
Major discussions related to the raw materials used through to processing methods and waste, to disposal of finished leather products have been raised by various groups to oppose the use and wearing of leather. The work undertaken by Northampton is the start of trying to understand how these younger generations are being affected by these new influences.
Modern Consumer attitudes
The ongoing research being done uses electronic surveys to talk to an international audience at University student level and consumers up to about 30 years old. They are accessed directly via our university links and also via social media. While this is very much ongoing research the outcomes to date have been so uniform that we are confident in using them.
What is clear is that the vast majority of young consumers still feel positive about leather, with two thirds seeing it as a luxury material and one third as a fashionable material. Considering the high penetration of non leather materials it is surprising that 100% of respondents expected to find leather in purses and wallets, 94% in footwear, and over 80% in handbags. Gloves, where leather is a minority material, also scored highly.
In analysing footwear in more detail the vast majority of consumers considered that leather offered the best value, with both synthetic materials and textiles following at much lower levels.
The greatest change in end use of leather in the last twenty years has been a very significant growth in automobile leather. There was somewhat of a collapse in this market at the start of the recession, but in 2010 the luxury sector has again seen great growth, strongly led by high levels of demand from China. Over 70% of respondents indicated that they would choose leather upholstery if possible and they supported this by comments that leather is a “sign of luxury” and “durability and smell”.
From the results we have seen so far it is clear that the modern young consumer, worldwide, retains a very positive feeling towards leather.
With regards to environmental mattes two thirds of respondents indicated that there were animal rights issues related to leather and one third that they knew of processing or chemical issues in leather manufacture. Yet when asked if these would lead to a decision to not buy leather 71% said no and of those who said yes a proportion made it clear they were talking only of fur.
At this stage the leather industry might conclude that it has no pressing problems. Yet the survey also shows that some two thirds of consumers do have concerns about the products they buy and use which are evenly spread as follows:
– Tanning process issues
– Animal welfare issues
– Sweatshop labour issues
Another significant group indicated that they had some or all of these problems in mind but that they bought from brands or retailers that they trusted to manage them on their behalf. The highest single response related to consumer concerns was on a slightly different tack and that was a desire to be get products repaired, especially in the luxury handbag sector. Given that the trend for consumer products has increasingly been moving to “fast fashion” characterised by short use and quick throw away this must be seen as significant. Amongst generation Y when given a list of concerns they might have from pollution through to sweat shop labour product longevity and the ability to have repairs done came out, albeit by a small margin, as the leading issue.
These results fit well with the latest Guardian Sustainable Business (GSB) (2010) survey in which over 70% of respondents said they thought that “energy, manufacturing and transport” companies have “little concern for the environment”. In fact over 90% were not sure they could trust a company director “to be honest” when talking about their approach to climate change.
The target audience for the GSB study is a wider demographic than that studied by the University but some highlights are relevant:
a. Pollution, climate change and over-use of resources were the primary concern of over 80% of respondents
b. While 80% of women were worried about landfill this was the case for only 65% of men
c. While older respondents were more concerned on health and safety matters the younger ones worry more about human rights.
One area of significance is the growing area of outdoor activities. Those who are interested in or participate in these areas expressed greater interest in water, landfill, CO2 and transportation problems. Other research has indicated that consumers in the outdoor are well disposed towards leather so the industry has a requirement to work hard to maintain their product loyalty. In fact a number of outdoor companies in the USA and Canada have set up arrangements for the repair of rucksacks as part of this process.
When buying clothing the GSB study showed a shift towards ethical concerns as being very high although in the Northampton study most respondents indicated a high degree of trust in brands and retailers to manage this. The 2007 Ethical Consumer Report indicated that It tends to be younger people that are the most likely to campaign on ethical issues, with 30 per cent of 18 to 29 year olds having done so in the previous 12 months.
The relationship of these views to actual purchasing is more complex. The GBS survey indicates that for many consumers price, quality and availability can be more important. Other important aspects of current purchasing are brand loyalty and time pressure.
What are called neutralisation techniques come into play here where such things as the complexity of a purchase, or apparently confusing scientific opinion is used by the consumer to continue with old purchasing habits when they know they should change. The Hunt-Vitell (1993) model argues that background factors are very important in taking ethical consumption decisions. These are classified as related to cultural environment and personal characteristics. When moral philosophies are added to these background factors ethical judgements are formed out of which ethical intentions and behaviour evolves. It is well known that there is a gap here most obviously apparent in areas like fair trade or organic foodstuffs where consumer intentions have been slow to translate into actual purchasing.
Ten years ago the 30:3 rule was suggested as indicating that while 30% of consumers had indicated intentions to buy ethical products only 3% did so (Cowe and Williams, 2000). Other reasons for the difference between stated concerns and actual ethical consumption practice suggested by Hurtado (1998) (quoted in Tallontire 2001) include (with specific reference to environmentally preferable goods):
a. environmentally preferable products may not meet consumer criteria of price, performance, quality and easy access;
b. the information about environmental benefits of products is insufficient; on-pack information lacks credibility with consumers;
c. there are not enough environmentally good products on the market;
d. the depth of knowledge about environmental issues is limited;
e. people do not have the time to look for products that are kinder to the environment;
f. people feel they cannot make much difference;
g. many people have little inclination to pay a premium
It is not the purpose of this paper to attempt an analysis of the psychology of purchasing, but only to highlight the complexity which provides the context to observable industry events, such as the DMF crisis and the development of opinion in a new generation of consumers from which many businesses have been shielded by high disposable income and spending patterns of boomers.
This work at Northampton reported on so far covers a wide ranging audience linked by age and education only but it does not delve into any of the user segments.
To research a little more deeply another methodology was followed to look at leather and subjectivity. This is an exploration of current understandings around leather and leather objects and uses Q methodology which is a pattern analysis which gives both quantitative and qualitative outcomes. The research involved is the first time the School s of Leather Technology and of Psychology have worked together on such a project.
This work looks at leather in terms of how consumers build identities through buying and consuming products. As a material with ancient origins leather has come to have a multitude of associations:
– status, luxury lifestyles
– archetypal images (heroes and villains)
– art, style, fashion
– sexuality (leather subcultures, fetish material)
– anti-consumption (environment, ethics, animal rights, vegans)
Studies were done looking at individuals from different subsets. Leather narratives discovered from this work indicated 6 groupings of significance based around questions related to how they saw leather:
• The epitome of quality and taste
• The sign of the tough guy
• Elegance and sophistication
• The pragmatic view
• A matter of excitement and seduction
• Environmental concerns
In combining these researches the areas of most interest in our current study are to understand the opinions and thinking of those holding either the pragmatic view or those with environmental concerns.
The pragmatic view encompasses thoughts that can be discussed in terms of:
– critical, sometimes cynical
– consider the choice of leather highly controversial
– have concerns about ethical questions
– acknowledges varied imagery but does not necessarily endorse it
These are consumers who are just not convinced about leather, who consider it to have issues or to be “too ‘everyday’ now” to be worth making a special purchase.
Those with environmental concerns had some definitive views:
– a critical outlook towards leather
– considered leather just a way of attracting attention
– for those with shallow motivation
– consider leather to be controversial and riddled with ethical issues
The overall view of this group regarding the purchase of leather is “it expresses selfishness”
Working from these sets of results the top line data gives the impression “no worries” yet the large number of individuals who have concerns that already put them off the product, or would do if they felt the problems that worry them were not being correctly managed mean that the industry does have to take note. In a world of social media where brands, even generic brands like leather, are as much managed by the consumer as they are by the brand owners, complaints and concerns go global instantly.
Looking at only two sectors from the Q analysis is very selective and does not give us any information on the size of these groups nor on their influence amongst a wider body of consumers. Yet it remains important in terms of what is under consideration here inasmuch as we see from Godin (2007) and Cova et al (2008) that so called tribes in consumer purchasing have become far more important in terms of their product and consumption choices. People from many quite different backgrounds may come together to be owners of Harley Davidson motor bikes but as Harley owners their purchasing is likely to be highly homogeneous and predictable. Groups like these to which consumers are becoming more attached be it from classical music to global travel are now most important targets for marketers because of the power of their consumption. In some instances consumers are members of more than one tribe even in the same day, changing from morning to afternoon. Godin (2007) makes the point that anyone who chooses can in the modern world establish a tribe of their own and start to do things differently.
The conclusions made by Roberts (2009) albeit at an interim stage in the research link into this as she says “Identities are not fixed, but change and are reconstructed in accordance with people’s perceptions of their own status, context and circumstances.” In these circumstances material objects are used beyond just their functionality and the convey elements of identity and an expression of social values.
Whether we look at industry events or at consumer attitudes all industry now has to change its stance. That is not new or particularly profound knowledge, but for a traditional industry such as tanning which has been steeped in a very strict product orientation, it constitutes a major wake up call. In general the major trends in the industry have been to advertise compliance and promote certain types of leathers as being more green or more organic, without any scientific supporting evidence. Ongoing research and every day evidence makes it abundantly clear that the new, younger consumer, is more savvy, more vocal and prepared and capable to engage with brands in public on matters which concern them. With 50% now being urban dwellers with little opportunity to engage with and understand traditional agriculture the leather industry cannot make assumptions about the attitude of these new consumers towards leather which is likely to be considerably shaped by negative press reports on industry and farming practices.
‘These new customers for luxury are younger than clients of the old luxe used to be, they are far more numerous, they make their money sooner and they are far more flexible in financing and fickle in choice. They do not stay put. They now have money to burn. The competition for their attention is intense and their consumption patterns – if you hadn’t noticed – are changing life for the rest of us.’ (Twitchell 2005)
According to Cannot (2010) the events of the last decade mean that the market has changed and we now see the following outcomes:
The consumers have changed their attitude, when they have a problem with a pair of shoes, it is not their wrong choice, it is a footwear problem
The chemicals suppliers are more supervised.
The technical specifications for the international trade have been changed
The authorities have learned how to react quickly
The innocuousness control (sometimes called the restricted substances list) has become essential. For many brands it has a much higher priority than the historical physical tests.
In this way the business environment is already changing. But we can foresee some significant matters yet to properly dealt with going forward such as landfill for finished footwear and leather goods, the way we use some chemicals once only, and the management of water by industry and agriculture. When you look at these issues and wonder on timing and how soon they will need to be addressed I ask you to think of the quote form Toffler that “the future arrives faster than you expect and in the wrong order”. Consumers are aware of these matters and quite well educated about them. Leather trade organisations are in no way structured to meet them with good science. And the continued defence that the industry is in the business of being bi-product users and refuse collectors (Sykes 1973) does not pass muster in a world of instant communications and skilled well financed pressure groups. Taking hides and filling them with chrome to be left in landfill in the form of chrome shavings and trimmings along with putting large quantities of salty waters into our aquifers does not constitute good citizenship. There are of course solutions to these issues but the leather industry will have to adopt them in a more serious way.
Environmental issues in their largest sense will play a very big role in the future concerns, costs and developments of tanneries. Pressures have moved from getting round legislation to meeting the demands of consumers reflected via retailers, brands and governments. Some point are becoming clear:
The concept of tanneries only utilising 50% of inputs cannot survive even in the medium term. Via reduction, reuse and recycle these needs to be changed, but even better would be to adopt policies such as cradle to cradle. The industry needs to start measuring these things and be transparent about the changes.
Associated with this we expect much more activity in the bio-base concept of making leather. The idea of replacing difficult inorganic chemicals with enzymes and smarter materials looks to have a lot of long term potential to help with our waste,.
This sort of research appears to be moving from the chemical companies to the research institutes and the tanneries as the chemical companies are investing heavily in compliance such as REACH at a time of reduced margins compared to the 1990s. New relationships and funding routes are likely to be established to facilitate this.
A re-examination of old methods and research into new methods of dealing with tannery solid waste and landfill from finished shoes and articles is required in order to for example extract chromium from shavings and trimmings and to extract fuel from fleshings. New economics are increasingly coming to work on the cost of waste and the financial benefits of re-use or clever use of waste. Adaptations of old “lost” technologies and their combination with contemporary ideas now look as though they could make a big contribution.
Tanneries and end users such as bag and footwear makers will start to work more closely together to consider design implications and end of life of a product. It is increasingly recognised that 90% of the matters related to the end of life are decided during the design stage. Designers will demand to be better briefed about all aspects of the materials they will be using.
One of the recently retired Professors at Northampton is quoted as saying that the leather industry took a CATNAP approach to the environment meaning currently used technology narrowly avoiding prosecution. In the UK we are lucky now to have some leading edge tanneries who have long left this mentality behind but world wide but it remains a pervasive attitude through much of the global industry. Leather is too useful a resource to be damaged by this carelessness. It has proven itself to be a highly versatile and valuable material through history. As Anca Robert(2009) says: representations of leather explored in the research reflect the shifting nature of personal identity and the capacity of a unique material to keep re-defining itself. The industry which prospers through its manufacture of leather now needs to redefine itself also.
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Michael Redwood email@example.com
Rachel Garwood firstname.lastname@example.org