France is the world’s 3rd-largest exporter of unprocessed leather and the world’s largest producer of calf leather, which is the material most in demand within the leather industry.
At the present time, the industry is encountering supply problems with calf skins, due to declining meat consumption (down 4% per annum) and the prevalence of ringworm, which impairs the quality of hides and makes them unfit for processing into leather.
Just 10% of the hides purchased from French cattle breeders can be converted into high-quality leatheŕ. The available supply of raw material is becoming too small to satisfy the strong development of the international market.
A pilot experiment performed in 2012 showed that vaccination against ringworm will triple the output of first-choice calf skins. Taking this measure could thus increase the proportion of high-quality hides from 10% to 30% of total livestock.
Vaccination against ringworm also provides the animals with better living conditions by reducing the levels of stress they suffer in connection with itching.
Norway introduced compulsory vaccination in 1978 and has virtually eradicated ringworm from its country.
A special commission was set up in 2008, involving all players in the industry (from livestock breeders through tò distributors of finished products), to measure the impact of good practice in livestock rearing on the hide and skin production chain for calves, young cattle and lambs.
This led to the following recommendations: adapting livestock rearing practices to reduce the level of defects appearing on hides, better hygiene for premises holding animals, vaccination, treatment against parasites, and supervising the conditions under which cattle are transported and slaughtered.
It is estimated that a 30% improvement in quality can be achieved by applying these measures to calf skins.
The French leather industry comprises a total of 45 tanneries, with a turnover of 404 million euros and a workforce of 1,550 (19 of these tanneries process large animal hides, while the remaining 26 convert small animal skins). Thanks to the know-how of these tanneries, French leather is a highly-prized commodity: the demand comes from large corporations, both in France and at̀ international level. The market is enjoying sustained growth, and turnover has been rising since 2012. France is the world’s leading producer of calf leathers and exotic skins (crocodile, iguana, ostrich and others).
A number of major French brands have sought to guarantee their security of supply, to enable them to cope with a shortage of raw materials and an inflationary trend in leather costs. Applying the logic of integrated manufacturing, these companies have adopted́ a strategy of moving upstream to integrate production and exploit know-how, by taking over suppliers.
Cutting the charges levied on the retail industry and on the leather industries, and adapting retail legislation
The difficult economic situation has had an adverse effect on retail trade, with a 5% drop in turnover between 2006 and 2012, while charges continued to rise over the same period. Retail rents, which are linked to the French construction cost index (ICC), have risen by almost 15% on average over the past 5 years, to a level (including service charges) representing almost 14% of retail turnover in 2012, i.e. the equivalent of the total wage bill. The Contribution Economique Territoriale (CET), a local business tax, has raised taxation levels by an average of 30% in the retail industry. The CNC is calling for a reduction in charges, which represent an excessive burden on the retail industry.
The industry is made up of 8,000 companies. The most innovative of these are developing by virtue of̀ processes derived from research: improvements in the quality of hides and of production, innovative industrial processes, environmentally-friendly practices, etc. New companies are also being created on the back of new concepts.
To promote the creation of new businesses, the CNC and the Fédération de la Chaussure [‘Footwear Federation’], with the support of CTC, the Economic Development Committee for the Footwear, Leather, Leather Goods and Gloves Industry, set up the Au-delà du Cuir [‘Beyond Leather’] association, or AdC for short, which is supported by the industry as a whole.
AdC provides guidance and advice, and facilitates the funding of projects managed by young entrepreneurs, drawing on a seed-capital fund and a guarantee fund. The AdC association provides support for small workshops producing footwear and leather goods: they hold special know-how, which represents a heritage worth protecting.
The funding raised by this levy, which currently amounts to 12.5 million euros, seeks to boost the competitiveness of SMEs/SMIs operating in the leather industry. It is funded primarily by major industrial groups in the sector (60%) and by imports (40%), and is redistributed to the smallest companies. It enables these small companies to develop innovation programmes, and research and development programmes, which are key factors in ensuring that they are successful and competitive.
What are the main uses to which the funding raised by this levy is put?
- Adapting industrial expertise to produce better quality hides, boosting industrial performance, improving the design of finished products, sustainable development, etc.
- Maintaining, developing and transferring knowledge, conducting research on behalf of the federations, setting up initial and vocational training courses.
- Accompanying promotion of the leather industry by granting financial assistance to companies, to enable them to participate in domestic and international trade fairs.
Capping the tax has the effect of limiting CTC’s resources and the collective actions taken to promote SMEs, based on the four ‘I’s: International, Investment, Innovation, Industry.
Counterfeiting is a significant threat to the ‘Made in France’ brand image and the brands under which French leather companies trade, especially in the leather goods sector. These companies spend substantial sums of money on protecting their designs, and although French customs have taken effective action, counterfeiting is still a scourge that needs to be combated.
Companies operating in the industry need to recruit significant numbers of workers but are finding it increasingly hard to do so. Job vacancies in some trades are no longer being filled, e.g. stitchers working in the leather goods industry, even though the companies concerned can offer their employees good prospects, satisfactory wages and a sense of pride in belonging to a unique value chain that makes an important contribution to the French economy.
This situation reflects the fact that young people and their parents are not fully conversant with the jobs on offer in the leather industry. The CNC showcases the 100 leather trades and training courses on offer by taking part iǹ a major event entitled l’Aventure des Métiers [‘the Trades Adventure’], held annually in November.
Communication and information actions are also undertaken in the regions of France where the leather industry is most strongly represented (Alsace, Lorraine, Aquitaine, Centre, Rhône-Alpes, Midi-Pyrénées).
Not enough young people are currently undergoing initial training, despite the strong demand for trained workers. Moreover, not all of the initial training courses on offer meet the current needs of leather goods and footwear companies.
The industry relies on a network of 165 colleges in France, which prepare their students for 63 diplomas (ranging from the CAP to the BTS vocational training certificates) across all sectors: shoe manufacture, shoe repairs/bespoke shoemaking, design/fashion, furs, leather apparel, leather goods, leather bookbinding and gilding, saddle-making, tanning, etc.
To boost the leather industry’s appeal among young people, CTC has set up partnerships with establishments whose profile is rooted in ‘science and technology’ or ‘fashion’: examples include a leather engineering school (ITECH), Savoie University (sports engineering), the Institut Colbert and the Institut Français de la Mode [‘French Fashion Institute’], which introduce students to the products and materials specific to the leather industries.
To remedy the problems encountered in training young people, the federations committed themselves long ago to promoting vocational training.
They are being supported by CTC which, at their request, is putting forward suitable training plans for their consideration.
With a view to perpetuating brand know-how, CTC also runs training courses for in‑house trainers – a solution that enables companies to react rapidly to changes.
Production techniques designed to protect the environment and consumer health: an industry-wide commitment
As early as the 1960s, the tanning industry embarked on a sustainable development policy to limit the impact of its activities on the environment.
As a user of water and treatment products, the tanning industry has adopted environmental standards and developed technologies that show consideration for the natural environment.
Ensuring French leather safety on consumer health is one of the industry’s main preoccupations
European standards governing chemical substances are strictly adhered to and monitored: correct proportioning of water and volatile matter; extractable matter, soluble matter and soluble mineral matter contained in leathers; and chloride ion content, to limit any adverse effects on consumer health. The French leather industry recommends the use of harmless substances such as chromium III or vegetable tannins.
CTC carries out monitoring, using extremely high-tech tools, which can measure very low concentration levels of chemical substances – of the order of ppm (parts per million or mg per kg of leather), or even less.
The CNC’s members, who are manufacturers, distributors, importers and wholesalers within the industry, are particularly demanding vis-à-vis their suppliers in terms of compliance with Corporate Social Responsibility standards.
Raising awareness among companies in the leather industry of the issues involved in CSR is a priority. Since 2005, actions have been organised at regular intervals to provide information for companies in the sector.
At CTC’s initiative, the leather industry’s CSR reference standards are currently being finalised.
In France and across Europe, the leather industries enjoy a strong and positive brand image among consumers, as leather is a noble material that is becoming increasingly popular with designers in the fashion world and other sectors.
On the other hand, despite the quality of its companies and its know-how, the industry is less clearly identified. It has a mixed public image, in view of the many difficulties it needs to deal with.
Leather and leather articles produced in the Asian countries are the subject of a great deal of media coverage: unacceptable working conditions, dangers posed to the consumer by toxic leathers, etc. This could create confusion with French production.
The industry therefore faces a challenging task to work on its image, so that it can protect its reputation, attract investors, funding and interest on the part of the authorities, entrepreneurs and young people embarking on training courses.