Practical traceability in the leather supply chain

Sam Setter
Published:  13 October, 2021
Credit: Derek Story

On October 7, ILM hosted a superb webinar on traceability in the leather supply chain, one of the best I have attended during the Covid-19 webinar floods. The chosen speakers explained what traceability was all about and showed what tools they had created to enact a functional traceability system from farm to shop.

Full traceability works perfectly in the EU and some other countries such as Brazil, Uruguay, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Botswana and others because these countries have set up an identification system of their meat producing animals for food safety. The main identification system is the ear tag with barcode which contains the animal’s data, which if updated for vaccinations, illnesses and change of proprietor, tell the life story of the animal.

Once the animal is processed, the ear tag ID can be associated with the meat and the hide or skin. The seminar showed different tools that can mark the hides and skins at slaughterhouse level in a permanent way so that they can be traced throughout the whole production process. If the buyer of the finished leather transfers the ID of the leather to his final product, we have the ideal situation of a pair of shoes, bags or a leather couch, that can be traced back to the birth of the animal.

This farm to shop traceability was once the dream of brands and now is becoming the reality. With the existence and capability to trace the leather goods back to the farm, brands now want to source their leather only from suppliers that offer fully traceable leather.

Leather benefits from food industry technology

The fact that the consumer is moving more towards adopting the requirement of purchasing materials that can be traced, and which they can ascertain are produced in a responsible and sustainable way, will have a very positive effect on the environment and the social aspect of the workforce as well as the quality of the goods.

In certain places, Europe for instance, traceability is required by legislation for food safety and in fact each piece of meat can be traced back to the animal. The expansion of meat industry traceability to hides and skins was just a matter of time and the available technology. The trick was to make the marking permanent and readable in spite of the chemical and mechanical processes.

In other places, where there is no legislation for compulsory identification of meat animals, it will be a long and difficult process, particularly in developing and emerging countries. Not only there, as I have been told that in the USA the majority of cattle farmers have no intention to identify their cattle with tags, presumably for fiscal reasons.

Development aid

Our tax money is granting some US$100 billion plus per year in development aid to developing countries. Some of that money reaches the leather industry and some progress has been made considering that less and less raw materials are exported and more and more value is added by exporting wet-blue, crust and from some countries fully finished leather.

If brands and distribution chains decide to buy exclusively fully traceable leather, the money that was spent over decades of development aid to the leather industry in Africa is wasted, because if the slogan is no traceability, then for them there are no sales. Tanneries will be forced to close, hundreds of thousands of people will lose their jobs and return to the poverty of the past. Such a scenario is not compatible with sustainability, responsibility, ethics and humanity.

Animal ID in the developing world

There is a lot of talk about the identification of cattle, goats and sheep in countries where there is no individual identification system, logically aimed at food security rather than hide and skin traceability, but after several years it remains just talk around the table. Some NGOs, the UN and government organisations that are involved in these talks are merely justifying their jobs with the usual projects and workshops but, in reality, nothing seems to be moving.

The situation on the ground at this moment is that an animal can be born in Libya and sold to a herder in Chad who walks the animal over the border to Nigeria. The Nigerian owner sells the animal to a butcher in Cameroon. The butcher in Cameroon sells his hide to a local trader.

Up to this point, nothing is official; no identification of the animal and border crossings are casual without certification. The first documented operation is the export of the hides to say, India, where the hide is tanned and sold as finished leather to a handbag manufacturer in China, who produces bags for export to Europe. This may sound extreme, but it is a realistic scenario and the more instable the political situation, the less controls. Traceability in the developing world is currently just wishful thinking.

Adding a traceability system

Everybody will agree that it would be totally unethical to deprive the upstream actors in developing and emerging countries of their livelihoods but, on the other hand, traceability should be introduced if these suppliers want to remain on the radar. So, we need to find a solution. The solution is not with the NGOs or the UN, but with the governments of the exporting countries and the import requirements of the purchasing countries.

Leather associations in those countries that have no traceability system for their livestock need to lobby their respective governments to introduce legislation that all animals for the food industry must be identified with an ear tag or embedded RFID tag like in Botswana, whether on professional farms and feedlots or “at home”, warning the operators of the prospect that without ear tags and connected traceability, the country risks that exports of hides and skins and leather, may drastically be impacted over the years.

Buyers of the hides and skins and leather from developing and emerging countries on their part need to give incentives for those lots that are traceable. Money talks, people listen! An ear tag costs pennies, and their application can easily be controlled and recorded by the veterinary services of the respective countries, which are extensively present even in rural areas.

Who should finance this? The brands of course! They are the ones that demand traceability, and they are the ones that make billions in profits and talk about sustainability and ethics. So, let’s hope they come forward and actively participate in practical traceability systems.

Sam Setter

samsetter2020@gmail.com