Leather falls behind

Redwood Comment
Published:  29 November, 2017
Dr Mike Redwood

At the recent Leather & Sustainability in Retail conference which ILM and BLC co-hosted in London on November 16, one of the delegates was quoted “we would like to see much greater levels of transparency from our suppliers (tanners) in terms of the chemicals used in the manufacture of leather. The industry falls behind other industries, such as the cosmetics sector for example, where there is much more openness about what is contained in each product.” 

This was from a major brand which mostly sources in Europe, where we are regularly told we have the best tanneries in the world with respect to ethics and integrity. I have heard similar comments from other brands about transparency in raw material supply, where some European tanners will not disclose the origin of the raw material being used.

There are a couple of excuses for this. On the one hand, some European tanners fear that advertising their hide sources would let aggressive competitors jump in and buy them. On the other hand, when I was hired into Santa Croce a long time ago part of the rationale was that I if left the company, as a foreigner, I would be less likely to go to a local competitor, taking their sourcing secrets. They had spent years building up complex supply chains and wanted to protect them.

Frankly, some decades on I do not believe either argument works. Relationships have simplified and strengthened, and if that is not the case then there is a management failure. Good suppliers of merit should by now be secure and trusted, be they in Europe and elsewhere. Equally customers should be trusted.

Icebreaker merino baacodes

In the merino world Icebreaker showed the way forward in 2009 with their “Baacodes” where on every garment the merino used could be traced back to each of their sheep stations, with all of whom they had long term supply deals. I had the chance to stay a few nights on one and found it outstanding, with a great family, so I know what I am looking for when I buy.

A friend of mine suggested something similar in Germany and in 2012 when Meindl boots launched their Identity range. The leather used to make each boot can be checked back to the local farm in Bavaria where it originated and through the identity number they provide complete information on all suppliers and partners.  Each of the boots and shoes in the Identity range thus have a unique “fingerprint”. This move from secrecy to openness jumps from mystery into a marketing advantage, and drives forward the business culture of continuous improvement in every aspect. It is really refreshing.

One starts to wonder if those who still choose to be secretive really have something to hide, and whether the response from the brands should actually be not to buy.

One thinks something similar regarding the chemicals. It is very curious as a laboratory test will uncover most things in detail. In fact, the problem with a chromium VI test is that the test can create it, so care is needed. What is the point of secrecy in chemicals? Perhaps the tanners are so dependent on chemical suppliers they do not know. If I were a brand and thought that, again, I would not buy.

This is 2017. It is not 1967. Then we did not understand the issues for the workers with many chemicals nor recognise the harm being done to the environment of many of our activities. The world has moved on, so must the last few tanners that have not been keeping up.

Dr Mike Redwood

28th November 2017

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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