Challenges to Leather Glove Quality

With higher prices likely to be unavoidable in the long run, the key is to stick with brands one trusts.

Leather industrial glove prices have been trending upward and will likely continue to rise for the foreseeable future. It is not entirely surprising if one thinks of leather, the primary material, as just another commodity tied to global consumption. In truth, several key, nuanced factors have driven supply and demand in this industry during the past few years and will continue to do so, with strong implications for those who depend on leather hand protection.

In recession years, one way people cut back is by substituting more expensive food items, such as beef, with more affordable ones such as pork and chicken. This was exactly the case after 2008, when fewer cattle were being slaughtered, leaving tanneries to complain about the squeeze in cowhide supply. The result was a counterintuitive hike in cowhide leather prices at a time when global economies were markedly soft. Ironically, pigskin prices also spiked, with farmers cashing in on higher pork prices before the hides matured to sufficient thicknesses for leather gloves. Some farmers bypassed the hassle of harvesting hides at all, reducing hides further for tanneries.

The larger dynamics of economic globalization will determine the future price trajectory of industrial leather gloves. To begin with, leather for industrial use is in an especially difficult position. Leather shoes and handbags often sell for many times that of industrial leather gloves, giving them priority in choosing leathers. In normal times, these manufacturers stuck with the higher-grade grain leather selections, while industrial glove makers were content with cosmetically imperfect grain and split leather pieces. But it is different today. As with many industries, not only are times changing on the whims of the new global marketplace, but also at the speed of new technology that sometimes disrupts old business models.

New manufacturing techniques are already in place that can transform lower-grade split leathers into first-class top-grain pieces. The magic starts by first shaving off cosmetic imperfections. A laminate of the appropriate color and texture is then heat-sealed onto the genuine leather. Finally, a grain pattern is embossed on the surface, resulting in what looks like a perfect piece of natural grain leather.

Footwear and handbag companies, typically retailing products for $85 and much more, have been quite happy to purchase split leathers aggressively for this profitable transformation. Industrial glove makers, with no intention of using synthetic laminates for their products that list for about $15 per pair, cannot afford to outbid other industries for the leather that was until recently reserved for them.


Global Economic Trends
As capitalistic models are being adopted in more parts of the world, those same free-market principles also are increasing the costs of goods produced in those countries. Business and manufacturing growth have touched off economic booms in emerging nations and fueled the growth of consumers with spending power. Large countries that have not had significant consumer economies in modern times are now crossing that threshold in a big way, with hundreds of millions of workers-cum-consumers. When workers earn more, they also tend to spend more on food, clothing, and other goods and services. That kind of market power exploding online increases demand for products such as leather goods and raises expectations for wage increases.

Higher labor costs alone are a particularly pronounced problem for producing industrial gloves. The manufacturing process is labor-intensive as well as unexciting, requiring higher wages to maintain an adequate workforce. Even the expectation of higher living standards has a cost. For instance, manufacturing countries with emerging economies are starting to adopt anti-pollution measures similar to the ones the United States has enjoyed for generations in order to protect their own lakes and streams. Tanneries complying with these regulations face higher operating costs, while non-compliant tanneries shut down and still others may not open at all. This may affect the supply of leather in the form of a bottleneck.

The demand side is no less dramatic. Car companies from Toyota to GM have rebounded dramatically in 2012. But when was the last time you saw a new car roll off an assembly line with vinyl or velour seats? Chances are, today's sedans and SUVs are upholstered in genuine leather -- about two cows' worth each. Along those same lines, demand for leather sporting and fashion shoes, handbags, and other leather goods also have increased dramatically with higher aggregate global consumption. Add to that the slowly recovering U.S. economy and the improving global situation about a year or two behind the U.S. cycle, and stronger demand for leather may yet have more legs for years to come.

End Users Get What They Pay For
So what can the industrial leather glove consumer expect? With less availability and a smaller selection of leather for this industry, quality itself may suffer unless prices move up. Faced with increased labor and leather costs on the one hand and a customer base not yet aware or accepting of global market prices on the other, some manufacturers may be tempted to take short-term measures. Some factories might substitute with thinner or lower quality leathers; use less time or cheaper chemicals in the tanning process, resulting in less softness; or even reduce the length of gloves to allay significant price movements. If these actions are taken, end users can expect poor fit, reduced comfort, less durability, and even decreased productivity to be some of the consequences.

But for all the challenges, it is difficult to replace that special combination of natural feel, reliable durability, and traditional protection that only genuine leather can provide.

How should industrial leather glove users weather such a storm? With higher prices likely to be unavoidable in the long run, the key is to stick with brands one trusts. Advertised brands have a reputation to protect and are less likely to cut corners. With any significant market share, chances are they also know how to control quality and deliver on their promises. The caveat here is to understand that leather is an organic material that varies by each animal and each piece. There will always be some quality variations, especially in industrial leathers.

Finally, industrial leather glove wearers will get what they pay for. By voting with their dollars, they signal what quality level of hand protection they want. In the long run, manufacturers will always obey the market.

If you need more information on leather, many of the industrial leather glove manufacturer websites are excellent sources of knowledge that will help you make better product decisions.

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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