2023 Could be Even More Challenging in Post-Brexit UK

Brexit in the UK has caused major issues with sourcing labour, added regulatory and import/export burdens, increased input costs and reduced customer confidence. Dr Kerry Senior, Director, Leather UK, a membership-based trade organisation with the remit to represent, promote and protect the leather industry, elaborates.

Long Story, Cut Short
  • Many markets are still suppressed, e.g. the automotive sector in the EU, a significant market for leather, is still struggling.
  • For the manufacturing sector, including leather, Brexit has offered no opportunities and has only increased the problems with making and selling leather.
  • For the leather sector, nothing good has come out of Brexit. Perhaps the only glimmer of hope is that there is an increased interest in reshoring production but as yet this has not happened and when it does, we will probably still have the same issues.
Recent research has shown that demand for hides has no direct influence on the number of animals reared and slaughtered, lending evidence-based weight to our understanding that hides are by-products of the meat industry. Understanding consumer attitudes is essential to identifying where the misunderstandings and concerns lay and targeting education and promotion to address them.
Consumer Attitude Recent research has shown that demand for hides has no direct influence on the number of animals reared and slaughtered, lending evidence-based weight to our understanding that hides are by-products of the meat industry. Understanding consumer attitudes is essential to identifying where the misunderstandings and concerns lay and targeting education and promotion to address them. Flash Dantz / Unsplash

Dr Kerry Senior took over as director of Leather UK in 2013. His role includes the secretariats of the Leather Producers’ Association, the Dr Dorothy Jordan Lloyd Memorial Trust and the British Industry Development Trust. In 2019, he became secretary of the International Council of Tanners. Among several other roles, he is also involved in the development of the EU Product Environment Category Rules for determining the environmental footprint of leather.

A straight, direct question to start with: how good or bad is it (in 2022) to be in the leather industry, particularly in the UK?
2022 has not been any easy year for any industry, including the leather sector. There are lingering issues from the Covid crisis with ongoing disruption to supply chains, increased costs for chemicals, labour and shipping. Many markets are still suppressed, e.g. the automotive sector in the EU, a significant market for leather, is still struggling with new registrations down 13.7% in the first half of 2022 compared to the same period in 2021. The situation in the UK has been exacerbated by Brexit, which has caused major issues with sourcing labour, added regulatory and import/export burdens, increased input costs and reduced customer confidence. While these are challenging times for the UK industry, the majority of tanners are busy and have good order books. This brings issues with meeting demand when workforces are reduced and there are increased lead times on delivery of raw materials and finished products but the UK tanners are managing for now. However, spiralling inflation and energy costs will undoubtedly have a significant impact and 2023 could be even more challenging.

Leather UK is over 100 years old, and 2022 is not 1908. How is Leather UK planning to position itself in a fast-changing world—a world that is in tumult?
I once heard trade associations described as being like insurance policies; you had to have them but you didn’t want to use them. The traditional model of the trade association doesn’t fit in the modern world. While we have to continue to provide the expected lobbying, statistics, updates on pending legislation, etc., Leather UK is also looking to be much more proactive in promoting leather, particularly with education for our customers and consumers. This means making the facts about leather more accessible, which we are doing with the new consumer area on our website, pushing back against misconceptions about the provenance and production of leather and also the alternatives to leather, which are frequently misrepresented. We aim to become the respected source of information about leather in the UK. Overall, we are striving to be a more agile and proactive body, and as one of our members suggested, ideally solving their problems before they know they have one.

Part of this involves greater collaboration with other leather bodies, such as COTANCE, Leather Working Group, LHCA, Leather Naturally and the ICT. Such collaboration gives greater reach and effect for all involved and has accelerated greatly in recent years. This has been most apparent in the challenge by a united leather sector to the wholly inaccurate score for leather in the Higg MSI. Here, the collected industry had provided unarguable data that the assumptions used in the MSI were incorrect, specifically the allocation of the impact of livestock rearing to leather. This conversation was effectively shut down following the ban on the use of the MSI on consumer-facing labels in Norway but we continue to highlight the failings in the Higg Index and are increasingly asked for comments by the media.

Research is essential to fill the gaps in data that are often used to attack leather, such as the perennial and idiotic claim that, because leather items don’t decay in your wardrobe, they cannot be biodegradable.
Essential Work Research is essential to fill the gaps in data that are often used to attack leather, such as the perennial and idiotic claim that, because leather items don’t decay in your wardrobe, they cannot be biodegradable. devn / Unsplash

Most leather associations around the world — when they started — were essentially associations of tannery owners or were certainly tannery driven. How inclusive is Leather UK today, in terms of the entire leather supply chain? Could you elaborate?
Until 2016, the various iterations of Leather UK were almost entirely focussed on the tanners. This changed with the strategy developed in 2016 and we are now open to anyone involved in the leather supply chain, from raw materials to retail of finished products. We now have 5 membership categories: Tanner for the manufacturers of leather; Associate for those businesses around the tanners in the supply chain; Affiliate for very small businesses (below the VAT threshold); Reciprocal for aligned non-commercial organisations and; student.

Our membership includes tanneries, raw material suppliers, luxury goods brands, automotive companies, artisans, livery companies, education and training providers, test-houses and auditing organisations and ranges from large corporations to artisans crafting bespoke luxury items. As such, it is fair to say that Leather UK is a very inclusive organisation.

This diversity is very evident in our ‘Art of Leather’ publication, which covers the spectrum of our membership from traditional tanners and artisans through to manufacturers of high-specification performance leathers produced on one of the most advanced tanneries in the world.

In 2016 Leather UK launched a five-year strategic plan to expand the remit and coverage of the organisation and increase its presence as the voice of the UK leather industry. This was expanded to 2021-26. Though it's only the second year into the new strategy, where do you think you stand today? The last one year has been difficult: so, have you been able to make any progress?
Clearly change won’t happen overnight but we have made progress. Importantly, our membership numbers, while still small, have doubled, which is hugely encouraging. We are also significantly expanded our reach through our social media channels and greater engagement with the press. This aspect really took off when we engaged a PR company to help us with the shape and delivery of messaging and connecting us with journalists. As a result we have featured in articles in some major B2B and B2C publications, and our following on social media has grown rapidly. Much of this has happened in the past couple of years, which have been difficult for everyone. However, these activities are probably more important when times are hard and we will be aiming to do even more.

This has greatly helped with our push back against the misinformation around vegan leather and plant-based alternatives and misrepresentation and lack of understanding of leather

One of the objectives is to help the UK leather industry to grow and thrive. What has been the progress since 2016? Could you share some numbers? Specifically: is the UK leather industry growing?
It is probably fair to describe the UK industry as stable. Three of the 6 years since the first strategy was launched have seen severe global and local disruption, with Covid-19 and Brexit, and this makes it difficult to comment on the progress of the UK industry. To their credit, all of our tanner members are still operating and we have even seen the opening of several very small and unique tanneries around the UK. For the rest of the supply chain, the issue is even harder to assess but we are constantly seeing new, small makers appearing.

At the moment, it is hard to see when the world will return to ‘normal’ but I am confident that when it does, the UK leather industry will grow and prosper.

The industry is confronted with additional costs and delays for imports of raw materials and chemicals and exports of finished products and additional regulation requirements such as registering chemicals under UK REACH that have already been registered in Europe. These issues have reduced customer confidence and increased lead times which has resulted in some of our European customers looking to other EU-based suppliers. The UK industry exports up to 90% of production, with around 50% of exports going to Europe. Losing a large part of this market would be a blow although this has not happened as yet and hopefully will not in the future.

Besides the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war which have affected everyone, there was another factor that was specific to the UK leather industry: Brexit. How did it affect you? What were the good things to come out of Brexit (if any)? Or was it a bad thing to happen?
Obviously, there were many reasons why the UK voted for Brexit. However, for the manufacturing sector, including leather, it has offered no opportunities and has only increased the problems with making and selling leather. As previously noted, the industry is struggling to recruit as there is a severe labour shortage. There are also labour shortages in the rest of the world but the situation in the UK has been exacerbated by a poorly thought-out post-Brexit migration policy that equates qualifications to skills. The industry is confronted with additional costs and delays for imports of raw materials and chemicals and exports of finished products and additional regulation requirements such as registering chemicals under UK REACH that have already been registered in Europe. These issues have reduced customer confidence and increased lead times which has resulted in some of our European customers looking to other, EU-based suppliers. The UK industry exports up to 90% of production, with around 50% of exports going to Europe. Losing a large part of this market would be a blow although this has not happened as yet and hopefully will not in the future.

If this was only affecting the leather industry, then it would be bad enough, but these issues are impacting right across the manufacturing sector and in other sectors. So, for the leather sector, nothing good has come out of Brexit. Perhaps the only glimmer of hope is that there is an increased interest in reshoring production but as yet this has not happened and when it does, we will probably still have the same issues with labour and input costs.

Another focus area of Leather UK's Strategy is research. Could you share some details? What research activities are you looking at in the near future? Would you be more keen on consumer trends? Or would that be R&D?
Research is critical for the understanding and development of the leather industry. Current, reliable data is needed to challenge negative claims about leather, to inform the development of regulation and to make leather manufacture as sustainable as possible. This would include consumer trends and understanding and R&D.

Leather UK has initiated and sponsored several research projects, including research on the accuracy of the current methods for measuring Chromium VI in leather with the Institute for Creative Leather Technology at the University of Northampton, the FILK report on the physical performance and characteristics of alternatives to leather with COTANCE, and our recent survey of UK consumer attitudes towards and understanding of leather. We are also supporting research on the biodegradation and bio-based content of leather and the alternatives, and aggregating current LCAs of leather manufacture. These reports should be available later this year / early next year.

This kind of research is essential to fill the gaps in data that are often used to attack leather, such as the perennial and idiotic claim that, because leather items don’t decay in your wardrobe, they cannot be biodegradable. Similarly, recent research by the University of Montana and Leather & Hide Council of America has shown that demand for hides has no direct influence on the number of animals reared and slaughtered, lending evidence-based weight to our understanding that hides are by-products of the meat industry. Understanding consumer attitudes is essential to identifying where the misunderstandings and concerns lay and targeting education and promotion to address them.

The industry is struggling to recruit as there is a severe labour shortage. There are also labour shortages in the rest of the world but the situation in the UK has been exacerbated by a poorly thought-out post-Brexit migration policy that equates qualifications to skills.

Kerry Senior
Kerry Senior / Director / Leather UK
 
 
  • Dated posted: August 25, 2022
  • Last modified: August 25, 2022