Essay fourteen: The properties and value of leather
The value of leather as a component brandThe value of an article may be defined as a function of its performance during use and perceptions of its uniqueness or desirability. Performance is determined as a combination of material properties and engineered design. Perceptions are subjective and malleable; they are shaped by information deemed reliable and by personal experience. Leather has a good reputation for durable performance and it is widely perceived as a luxurious material that wears well and ages gracefully. The leather manufacturing industry has significant vested interest in maintaining a strong identity and favorable image for leather to support its position in the market as a material of high value.
The basis for leather’s performance stems from its physical components. Designed by nature, leather’s intriguing structure starts with nano-strands of triple helical collagen twisted into very fine fibrils, then counter-twisted into larger fibres, then intertwined into fibre bundles. The secondary and tertiary structures provide great physical strength. Very fine fibres that give a smooth glossiness to the grain surface, along with the distinctively patterned hair follicles, impart a pleasing touch sensation and a natural beauty to full-grain leather.
Once the pelt of an animal is cleaned and purified, the tanner uses his knowledge of the leather-making process to stabilise the structure and create additional desirable physical and aesthetic properties. The tanning process builds upon the natural properties to ensure the natural protein bio-material is made resistant to microbial attack and remains stable at elevated temperatures. Selection of different raw materials and with appropriate tanning, retanning, and finishing operations, the tanner creates a wide range of properties appropriate for various leather end-uses. Leather’s mouldability, durability, and moisture management properties make it a premium structural material for makers of shoes. Its endurance, comfort, and cleanability make it a good covering for furniture or automotive seats. Its increasingly elegant look as it ages and warmth to the touch make it a good choice for jackets, handbags and other leather articles.
When the physical performance properties of leather, combined with optic, haptic and olfactory features, are properly crafted in a well designed article, leather is truly deserving of its reputation as something special. Leather is an honest, natural product that earns its position in the marketplace as a premium and noble material. (Leather-making is indeed a traditional and an ethical practice and, as consumers of meat and milk, it is a fitting tribute to sacrificed animals that their hides and skins are not simply discarded but live on as leather).
As tanners, we need to remind ourselves that leather is a component material and not a finished article. There are a number of steps in the value chain that separate the tanner (who typically manufactures the leather as a bespoke order) and the consumer. It is often a buyer who represents the brand (engineers, design team, and fabricators) who stipulates the properties and quality required; or, they make a selection from what is on offer from the tanner. Although there are some good examples of vertical integration up and down the value chain, there would appear to be an opportunity for the leather manufacturing industry to better understand the consumer. This would allow the tanner’s knowledge of leather to be better communicated up the supply chain to the point of retail. The tanner understands the raw material and its intrinsic properties and has the ability to ensure the most advantageous features are crafted into the leather depending on the article and its intended use.
Identity of leatherLeather is featured as a selected premium material by many of the world’s leading manufacturers of consumer brands. It is used to promote desirability of their product. This is largely based on what a typical consumer will know and expect from leather – their perception. We see this used as sales strategy at point of retail where the word leather is used to convey a sense of value. The article is described by the salesperson as “a leather jacket”, “a leather sofa”, “a leather shoe”, or a “car with leather interior”. The descriptor leather is used to invoke a favourable emotional response in the mind of the consumer. It is meant to elicit expectations of durability, luxury, performance and intrinsic value.
Indispensable for many articles in earlier times, today leather is a choice. Synthetic material replacements exist for all leather end-uses and are becoming increasingly competitive. The functional and aesthetic properties of synthetic replacement materials have improved significantly over the last few decades, pointedly surpassing those of leather for many applications. Polymeric shoe soles have better wear properties and are permanently waterproof. Manufacturers of athletic shoes have opted for thinner and stronger materials that are less dense, more lightweight. Airline and automotive seating is under threat from low-density materials that claim to be easier to clean and maintain. Synthetics, made increasingly to look and perform like leather, are also favoured by some manufacturers of articles because of cost. Some retailers use confusion surrounding leather material identity for profit; the word leather is abused at point of retail. Synthetic materials, or materials that might contain some leather but are not natural leather, are sold using the word “leather” (for example bonded leather, e-leather, leatherette, eco-leather, and so on). At times this is deliberately designed to confuse the buyer. Some areas of the world have lax labelling laws and synthetic materials, made to look like leather, are intentionally mislabeled.
Unfortunately, a portion of leathers made by the industry are also made poorly, or are notionally “upgraded” with a heavy plastic coating. Some “enhancing techniques”, done well, may be necessary and acceptable, but the look and touch of many lower-quality heavily finished leathers make them appear and perform unsatisfactorily; they are more like cheap synthetic material than leather. Sales people are often not much help in enlightening the customer about the differences between what is and what is not leather, nor about the true benefits of quality leather. A number of brands and retailers intentionally design in lower-cost synthetics or low-quality, cheap leathers hoping to cash in on consumers’ perception of leather as a luxurious, durable, and noble material.
Image of the industryTo add to concerns about leather identity, influential voices in the fashion and animal rights sectors advocate against the use of leather, arguing that leather is no longer necessary and should be avoided. High utilisation of resources (water, energy, chemicals), controversy over carbon footprint, and the way some in the industry handle waste also invite criticism from a world increasingly focused on transparency in sourcing and demanding more sustainable manufacturing and stewardship of resources. This is unfortunate, as leather can be made sustainably, without undue damage to the environment. However, the practice of some can impact the view of many. Confusion in the mind of the consumer, about leather as a product and the industry that makes it, can detract from the desirability or demand for leather, and thus negatively affect value.
Leather as a brand
Using price as proxy, ultimately, the value of leather is established at point of retail by what the consumer is willing to pay. Depending on the article and design, leather may be a major or lesser component part. Leather may make up more than 80% of a belt, a bag or a shoe, or leather can be a much smaller part as a garment trim or the cover of an automotive seat. What is typical is that the leather is a feature of the article and promoted as selling point. Leather fits all the definitions of a brand.
Ingredient or component branding is one of the most rapidly growing segments of marketing today – especially with global brands. The desired result of such a strategy is a win-win partnership between component manufacturer and brand. Each brings their expertise and knowledge to help enhance the value of the final article. This demands clear communication and a close working relationship with agreed and defined responsibilities and goals. When done right, the effort is synergistic and benefits the component manufacturer and producer of the final article. Some of the principles of component branding may bring benefit to the leather manufacturer.