March, 20th. Interview with Maurizio Maggioni, Prossimapelle.
GreenLIFE. Considering the constant threats of alternative materials, misconception about their natural quality, animal welfare and environmental concern, among other challenges, that leather is facing, what in your opinion are the prospects of this industry over the next 10 years?
Maurizio Maggioni. First of all, I would like to point out that when we talk, for example of ‘vegan leather’ – the term refers to a material that is made up of about 60% of petroleum-based resins which compact vegetable fibres. So, there is very little ‘natural’ or so to say, ‘organic’ in this alternative material, which has nothing to do with leather. Many time people use the issue of animal welfare to the detriment of the reputation of the leather industry. But they use a false argument because cattle are raised and slaughtered for the meat industry rather than for the leather industry. Their hides could be destroyed and buried, and instead, the tanning industry uses these as raw materials for shoes, bags, clothing, furniture, etc. In reality, it would be more appropriate to mention something more relevant to the industry. Today the path seems already traced towards an increasingly niche and quality market. This is clearly demonstrated by the success of the sneakers, which have replaced the classic footwear. Great international brands believe in this new market and have abandoned their initial mission in clothing and leather goods. Leather will now increasingly be destined for medium-high end products, whether it be footwear, leather goods, automotive, clothing, and furnishings.
GL. How do you expect the global tannery industry to evolve in the near future?
MM. I expect a rise in the mergers of companies to develop into larger corporations with higher production capacity and turnover. These companies will need to be increasingly attentive to the environmental aspects and correspondingly adopt production processes entailing the use of environment-friendly materials and chemical auxiliaries, with an even lower pollution index. There is already evidence of this awareness in Italy and Europe. This has been favoured by the interaction between the tanneries, the chemical companies located within the virtuous circuit of the tanning districts (with some exceptions). Brands themselves need to limit the use of hazardous chemical auxiliaries for increasingly sustainable production. Rising attention towards sustainability is demonstrated by the success of the Leather Working Group (LWG) and the ZDHC (multi-stakeholder groups, which promote the sustainability of the sector).
Another trend seems to be the acquisition of small businesses, which are at the centre of interesting markets with the aim to obtain the quality that at the moment only Italy is guaranteeing.
Concerning the environmental aspect, I would expect greater awareness, even from a regulatory point of view, in particular when raw or semi-finished leather is imported. When semi-finished leather is bought from abroad, it is necessary to identify the differences in its processing compared to the hides processed in Italy, especially when it comes to the chemical auxiliaries which have been used.
GL. How is leather considered in your culture?
MM In my opinion, when identifying common cultural perceptions about leather, we must firstly look at age groups. In Italy, it seems to me that the leather shoe, for example, is perceived as a quality product only by people over the age of 35. For the risk of repeating myself, sneakers are generally made of synthetic fabric and plastics, and they are replacing the classic leather shoe. Today the sports brand has become a lifestyle. Under the age of 35, one does not consider the healthiness of the foot inside the shoe. It is not commonly known that the upper and sole made with leather, make the foot breathe and avoid dermatitis. Thus, the quality perception of leather must be understood not only by diverse cultural groups, but also by age groups.
With 14 billion footwear produced each year, also considering flip flops and slippers, made in China, only 2.8 billion of them have a leather upper. This indicates the minimal use of leather when looking at global numbers. This is also in relation to the overall spending capacity. Leather shoe costs more and leather is increasingly becoming an elite material. Shoe shops in Italy usually located in the historic centres are fast disappearing. Instead, shopping centres have sneakers in high quantities. There is a marked cultural change in relation to the purchase of leather shoes.
You buy what you see … and in shopping centres you can only see and sell brand products of great appeal. These stores, both online and brick-&-mortar offer shoes or clothing made mostly with alternative materials. Also, they invest in aggressive marketing campaigns toward consumers and focus more on aesthetics than material quality.
GL As a media representative, how would you recommend tanneries to communicate with the people? And what would be the key message to establish and maintain goodwill in the general public towards leather?
MM. A different communication is the need-of-the-hour considering that the big brands will never communicate the qualities of leather. Even in the automotive sector, synthetic fabrics are emerging without considering the sanitizing quality that hides allow when compared to synthetic fabric. In addition to this, we should also consider the biodegradability of materials. Even if there are no standardized methods for calculating it, plastic and technical fabric subjected to accelerated ageing remain as they are, instead, leather loses thickness. As such, when considering the environmental impact at the end of the life circle, leather wins over technical fabrics and plastics. These aspects are never communicated to the consumers. There is a real need to think about a completely different industry approach to product communication. We tend to talk to each other instead of carrying out the message. We should work on the perception of the end-user, but it is tricky without adequate economic resources.
There are many companies with excellent products which, however, they invest few resources in communication. We need to showcase better our products, with more shop windows, more leather products on the shelves, to maintain and appeal to consumers’ desire, whether they are above or below 35 years of age.
Maurizio Maggioni is the Editor-in-Chief of the Prossimapelle magazine. From the year 1988 to 2009, Maurizio has been involved in the publishing of magazines focusing on tanning technologies and has edited technical books for Italian tanning schools (including, Tanning practice manual, Leather finishing, Leather glossary, Leather chemistry and technology, Tanning technology). From 2003 to 2012, Mr. Maggioni has been a councilor of AICC – Italian Association of Leather Chemists, and from 2012 to date, Maurizio has been held the role of general secretary at National Union of Italian Manufacturers of Tanning Auxiliaries (UNPAC), the aggregation of the major Italian companies in the chemical tanning sector that Maggioni helped to found. Since November 2015, Maurizio has served as a delegate to the UNI 013 regulatory table – Leather, Leather and Leather Goods, and to the European tables of the CEN 289 standard. In addition, since December 2018, Maurizio Maggioni has been a delegate to Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC), the foundation which aims to implement more sustainable chemistry along the entire fashion chain, including tannery.