Cleaning Up the Leather Supply Chain

It is worth every tannery and trade association buying into ESG to push for doing things correctly at every level. One big area for leather is its longevity and production and design should have this in mind and plan for repair, refurbishment and possible repurposing.

Long Story, Cut Short
  • Tanners need to work harder to find ways to stop hides and skins being wasted. This needs thinking creatively.
  • There is a role for national and international associations to assist, particularly in helping SMEs who do not have all the resources to individually inspect or pay for audits.
  • Leather benefits from an agreed narrative that every tanner and other stakeholder will buy into, that is based on solid honest science: totally free of greenwash, pretence, overstatement or dishonesty.
Carbon foot-printing and circularity do take into account that the animals used for 99% of leather are not killed for their skins alone.
Skin Deep Carbon foot-printing and circularity do take into account that the animals used for 99% of leather are not killed for their skins alone. agoodkeensavage / Pixabay

The industry should be pleased with the new language that is coming from the leather trade across the world lately. It has moved from nostalgia and anger towards transparency and honest science to explain objectively why making and using leather is good for us all. The Leather Manifesto published just before COP26 by thirty national, regional, sectoral and international bodies highlighted many of those points, and make it quite clear why leather is generally a good thing. 

Every industry has to use adjectives like “generally” or a qualification such as “when properly produced” as bad practices and behaviour persist in businesses of all kinds, and sadly no, leather is not an exception. That leather can claim to be overwhelmingly sustainable is a huge achievement given the pitfalls to be found throughout the long and complex supply channels we live in, and the very large number of small and medium sized tanneries around the world whose resources are limited by their size.

If a tannery is not willing to provide protective wear for its workforce or properly manage its waste streams, solid and liquid, it is hard to imagine they will care about slave labour, animal welfare or deforestation elsewhere in their chain. It is essential that our national and international associations work to find early solutions to change this. These bad practices are wrong for our global society in every way. 

Although the pandemic has pushed people back into poverty and reversed many positive moves from some countries the strong trend towards dealing with problem zones is expected to continue but given the mix of corruption, dysfunctional administrative functions and weak or absent enforcement of rules our trade associations and other stakeholders will have to actively intervene.

In many areas authorities have congregated tanneries together and built a central effluent plant with all tanneries subscribing to pay the running costs, with tannery associations playing a full part. Where tanneries already exist in such a conglomeration there has been a lot of success but in some circumstances stringent action is required against tanners refusing to  pay their dues. Governments have forced closures of smaller units unwilling to relocate, recognising that such units cannot afford standalone treatment plants. This is logical as is the need for proper action against any.

For a while it was thought that brands would force solutions in tanneries through positive purchasing policies but while some brands back their words with actions others play games with greenwashing or walk away, and are often as much of the problem as the tanners themselves. In most situations engagement is required to get improvements and abandoning an area leaves poor people who need help destitute.

In other areas changes are happening but the pace needs to be improved. New cooperations are helping raw material buyers escape from raw material supplies that risk deforestation and slave labour, although in places like Brazil, the damage done by governments who oppose actions to save biodiversity or slow climate change are apparent and tanners have to be particularly careful. Here again there is a role for the national and international associations to assist, particularly in helping SMEs who do not have all the resources to individually inspect or pay for audits.

That leather can claim to be overwhelmingly sustainable is a huge achievement given the pitfalls to be found throughout the long and complex supply channels we live in, and the very large number of small and medium sized tanneries around the world whose resources are limited by their size.
SUSTAINABLE ALRIGHT That leather can claim to be overwhelmingly sustainable is a huge achievement given the pitfalls to be found throughout the long and complex supply channels we live in, and the very large number of small and medium sized tanneries around the world whose resources are limited by their size. agoodkeensavage / Pixabay

Any chain is only as strong as its weakest link

When Greenpeace published its ‘Slaughtering the Amazon’ report in June 2009 one major user of leather discovered that they had a division buying leather from Brazil that they did not know about, so unexpectedly found themselves named and attacked. When discussing this we were reminded that any chain is only as strong as its weakest link. 

Work done by the Leather Working Group (LWG) and others who have followed have helped take a lead in environmental and audit matters and the Sustainable Leather Foundation (SLF) looks well set to help the leather industry widen and broaden this activity into the further reaches of the industry and into all areas of the modern Environment, Sustainability and Government (ESG) agenda. It is worth every tannery and trade association buying into this work as well as finding some finance to join Leather Naturally (LN) given what a good material leather is and how positively we could be seen if we pushed for doing things correctly at every level. 

The pandemic highlighted relatively poor working conditions throughout the world in abattoirs and meat packing plants and the associated risks taken by leather producers becoming associated with modern day slave labour. Unacceptable labour practices are to be found throughout the world so everyone has to combine to be vigilant. As well as problems in sectors of the agricultural industry there is a recognised scandal of labour abuse in the textile sector in Leicester in the UK with inadequate enforcement of clear rules undercuts those companies trying to stay alive using best practice. Problems exist in the supply chain in all markets, rich and poor.

It is easy to say that as a user of a by-product we can ignore what happens before and after the tannery doors but this does not work for the modern agenda and the planetary problems we are committed as an industry to play our part in solving. Reducing poverty, providing fair and worthwhile work, minimal use of water and energy and working to end waste, aid the reduction of climate change and improving biodiversity. Indeed all the objectives laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) which have clear application throughout the extended leather industry network. One big area for leather is its longevity and production and design should have this in mind and plan for repair, refurbishment and possible repurposing. Repairs offer the opportunity for large numbers of good jobs, along with a big saving in planetary resources.

It is easy to say that as a user of a by-product we can ignore what happens before and after the tannery doors but this does not work for the modern agenda and the planetary problems we are committed as an industry to play our part in solving.
Get a Tan-nery It is easy to say that as a user of a by-product we can ignore what happens before and after the tannery doors but this does not work for the modern agenda and the planetary problems we are committed as an industry to play our part in solving. Johannes Pokorn / Unsplash

Carbon Foot-printing

Carbon foot-printing and circularity do take into account that the animals used for 99% of leather are not killed for their skins alone. The hides and skins are classed as non-determining products that do not influence the keeping or ownership of livestock but that they might be used to save a waste problem. With this in mind tanners need to work harder to find ways to stop hides and skins being wasted. This needs thinking creatively.  Making yesterday’s commodity leathers does not work and never will. The days when leather was a necessity are over and consumer choice shifts to leather alternates when tanneries create plastic-looking leathers. The big production of such poor leathers probably helped create the market for cheap synthetic copies. These need to be challenged with exciting contemporary leathers that fit with modern society and celebrate the natural origins of the material.

In much of the world this has been made harder by deteriorating animal husbandry which has impacted the quality of many hides and skins. Better animal welfare gives improved yields of milk and meat as well as better hides, so partnerships here make sense for tanners who need to be sure that the animals involved in their chain are properly treated. Equally many types of auditing systems struggle with auditing small farmers and rural abattoirs. Vivobarefoot, a British shoemaker who sources some of its lines from Ethiopia demonstrates in its promotions how supporting small pastoral producers can be a positive, and as a B Corporation is able to do so with full environmental credibility. 

Given the nature and complexity of the discussion about agricultural methods including such topics as regenerative agriculture, GWP* replacing GWP100 and the auditing systems best used when deforestation might be involved national tanning organisations should consider getting fully acquainted with every aspect in order to guide the medium and smaller organisation that lack some of the resources to do. 

It might be thought that all this throws too much weight onto creaking national tannery associations, but over the last five years or so quite a few have jumped into life and helped the transformation of the industry. Some say that I am pushing for too much centralised messaging by demanding ever stronger coordination but that is quite untrue. We do benefit from an agreed narrative that every tanner and other stakeholder will buy into, that is based on solid honest science: totally free of greenwash, pretence, overstatement or dishonesty. Hence we should all support the Leather Manifesto and read and distribute widely the ‘Guide To Modern Leather Making’ ( Scroll to the bottom of the page and fill in the form; the guide is free and already in a number of languages).

That said national associations should also focus on their individual characters, as mostly they currently do. Leather has always had many country adaptations based on skin types and available tanning materials, allied with local skills.  Today we have to emphasise design and innovation that fits the national character as well.

For a while it was thought that brands would force solutions in tanneries through positive purchasing policies but while some brands back their words with actions others play games with greenwashing or walk away, and are often as much of the problem as the tanners themselves.
Brand Games For a while it was thought that brands would force solutions in tanneries through positive purchasing policies but while some brands back their words with actions others play games with greenwashing or walk away, and are often as much of the problem as the tanners themselves. Claudio Schwarz / Unsplash

Supply Chains

There is another point related to the role of national organisations and supply chains, especially when we do have overall good cooperation with bodies  like UNIDO and the FAO, and that must be the potential for the leather industry to seek funding from the various climate change funds for mitigation and adaptation. The leather industry and its supply network offers huge numbers of jobs to ordinary people and can quickly pull in those who are not in employment or working in the black economy, offering good careers. Taking solid wastes and using one of a number of methods to produce energy, adding to  biodiesel that can be produced from fleshings could be a huge help to a country wanting to transition away from coal or oil. Many tanneries are on sites where solar, wind or geothermal energy makes good sense to add into the mix. 

So while many consider the long tannery supply chain to be loaded with problems, positive approaches can reverse that into a myriad of outstanding opportunities to benefit communities, society as a whole and on the planet we are trying to make safe for future generations. It is clear post pandemic that business will increasingly become impossible for those who do not acknowledge and respond to the need to deal with these issues.  

Mike Redwood

Mike Redwood retired some years ago from a 50-year career in the leather industry, where he started as a technician holding many senior positions around the world, latterly focusing on marketing and innovation. During his retirement he has supported Leather Naturally and now spends most of his time as a Trustee of the Leather Conservation Centre. 

 
 
 
  • Dated posted: 20 April 2022
  • Last modified: 20 April 2022