When it comes to sustainability, the leather sector has some cracks

Guest Opinion / Gert van der Bijl, Solidaridad
Published:  18 March, 2021
Credit: Solidaridad

Global civil society organisation (CSO) Solidaridad has decades of experience in developing sustainable supply chains in agriculture, textiles and gold mining. Based on five years working in sustainable leather, Gert van der Bijl, Policy Influencer at Solidaridad, provides insight on where he feels the global leather sector stands today in terms of sustainability.

Loving leather is a bit like a virus, once you come into contact with the industry, you catch the bug. That’s what people in the leather industry tell me, and even I, in my capacity as a sustainability expert, was not immune.

People that work in the leather sector tend to be passionate about the product. This passion is contagious, but it comes with its downsides. Those that love leather can be overly defensive when outsiders raise concerns about the sustainability of the product. I have met more than one leather sector worker who believed the product to be ‘sustainable by nature’, due to the fact that leather is a by-product of livestock, a means of using something that would otherwise have gone to waste.

That, sadly, is a simplification of the sinuous supply chain that sees leather delivered to its final destination. The leather sector is global and complex, involving millions of workers across national boundaries and with a turnover of rough €80 billion a year. No supply chain involving that money and that many people can be free of sustainability concerns.

However, despite being burdened with its own issues, the idea advocated by some activists that leather is inherently unsustainable, is equally off the mark. The truth is that the leather industry, when it comes to sustainability, has a few cracks. But, like anyone who has ever repaired a crack in a leather shoe can tell you, how you treat those cracks can make all the difference.

With that in mind, I would like to share what I have learned about sustainability in leather supply chains; the problems, and how they can be best addressed to allow this industry, which so many people love, to stand the test of time.

A complex supply chain

Firstly, it is important to showcase why leather can present such a puzzle for sustainability programmes. Essentially, this is due to its highly complex supply chain.

Leather production starts in farms, where cattle are raised and slaughtered. The hides are sold to tanneries, which can be located across the world. Tanneries process the hides into what we call leather, which is sold to manufacturers to be turned into a huge variety of end products, from shoes and jackets, to car seats and bags. At every stage a huge number of employees and private sector entities is involved, including farmers, leather traders, wholesalers and retailers, high-fashion brands, SMEs and more. Throughout this process, leather often travels around the world, from Africa to India and then to Europe or America. It is not just an international chain, but a global network. A testament to this is the fact that a large number of the world’s tanneries is located in the global south, including India and Bangladesh, far away from where most profit on these products is made, namely in high-income countries in Europe.

This last point is also a testament to the deeper sustainability issues in the leather sector.

Sustainability challenges

Today, tanneries in countries such as the Netherlands work with high environmental standards and good conditions for employees. However, it is exactly the environmental and labour standards enshrined in European countries that led many large tanneries to move southwards decades ago. As a result, sustainability issues have not been tackled, they have been relocated.

Name an issue and it presents itself somewhere in the leather supply chain: improper land use; CO2 emissions and animal welfare in livestock, environmental and labour challenges in tanning, and labour issues in manufacturing. Millions of people, men and women, in leather manufacturing and tanneries, are not likely to earn a living wage, the income necessary for a worker to meet his or her basic needs. Worldwide tanneries cause pollution through liquid or solid waste. Leather demand is not the real driver for livestock expansion and deforestation - this driver is mainly the demand for meat - but hides and leather are part of the same supply chain. This is worth a deeper look, but a lot of consumers have already made up their mind.

Credit: Solidaridad

There are many companies in the supply chain that have no clue what they could or should do to promote sustainability or how to work with suppliers on promoting it. Some simply don’t really care about it at all. And although there are some in the sector who feel victimised by the media, the actual attention paid by the media to issues in leather sustainability is scant, perhaps due to its complex nature.

Repairing the cracks

All that said, these sustainability shortcomings are not the complete picture. I have seen a lot of people in the leather industry that are passionately working to improve sustainability, and they are making good progress. Companies, big and small, are promoting sustainability in their supply chains. Some large companies, such as Timberland and Kering are going as far as stimulating regenerative farming at the livestock level, working with farmers to create sustainability standards at the source. Producers of essential tanning chemicals, such as Stahl, are working hard to promote the safe and environmentally friendly use of chemicals at tanneries in the developing world. Dugros, partner of Solidaridad in Kolkata, is working in its own tannery with high environmental and social standards. At the retail and manufacturer level, small leather bag companies such as MyoMy and OMyBag in the Netherlands strive to sell products that are truly sustainable, trying to buy from sources that ensure decent working conditions for employees and high environmental standards. And in many countries, tanneries have drastically reduced pollution.

There are also more and more joint sustainability initiatives being developed in the sector.

However, these have their drawbacks. Many of them have been set up by regional industries who are also seeking to boost sales. And a lot of these initiatives are still quite internal to the industry. When Solidaridad asked to join the Leather Working Group (LWG), the strongest and most well-known voice in the sector, the answer was that the LWG is a business-led initiative. LWG has set a standard and audit system for chemical management in tanneries and now certifies around 20% of global leather production. Increasingly, companies will only buy leather if it is LWG certified. Despite the real value LWG adds to this sector, it is still far from a real supply chain sustainability system. Multi-stakeholder initiatives for sustainability are poorly developed, and sorely needed in the leather sector. Apart from a few larger companies, the leather sector is under-represented in initiatives such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition or the Apparel Impact Institute.

This needs to change, and there are signs that these cracks in the leather sector are being treated. The LWG is slowly broadening its scope. The Responsible Leather Round Table has developed the Leather Impact Accelerator to promote improvement throughout the sector. And the Sustainable Leather Foundation (SLF), a new not-for-profit, independent organisation is piloting a system to work across the whole supply chain from farm to consumer, looking at all sustainability risks. SLF is already engaging on a collaborative level with industry stakeholders to work together for better outcomes and sees training and support, at the grassroots level, as a key to its success.

I really hope these initiatives can heal the cracks that I see: providing guidance and support throughout the supply chain to continuously improve, supporting downstream companies, big and small, to invest in upstream sustainability and becoming genuinely transparent about performance internally and externally towards consumers and the general public. It is a complex enough chain already, and if the leather sector wants to build trust with a more sustainability engaged public, the facts about leather, and where it falls short, need to be easily accessible.

On the policy side, this may soon not be an option. In the relatively short-term, mandatory EU due diligence measures will be developed and it is important for the leather industry to be aware, and to make sure sustainability activities are aligned with policy.

But as I said, there are a lot of companies and individuals with a real drive to address these issues in leather. If these voices are heard, these issues do not have to mean that leather will remain a broadly unsustainable product. And upcoming legislation won’t have to be a danger to the sector, but an opportunity to grow and build a better leather supply chain.

Gert

Gert van der Bijl