Much of the pressure to improve environmental performance placed on the tanning industry comes from the major global brands and retailers reacting to consumers, NGOs and pressure groups. However, in the business environment the leather buyers are effectively telling their suppliers that they expect them to meet all the accepted minimum (and well beyond in many cases) standards for the parameters mentioned above as well as for others not mentioned not specific to the environment.

Many tanneries around the world are generally small, medium sized family run operations located in buildings built during a different period of history, often situated where the local neighbourhood has changed over the years.

In this context, and faced with an ever-growing demand from their customers, the brands and retailers, there must be an acceptance on the side of the leather buyer that they must purchase materials from suppliers who genuinely work hard and invest in improving environmental compliance.

At the “Tannery of the Future” Leather Forum in Shanghai last August a question was put to a member of a major international brand: “I have two identical pieces of leather. One ticks all the boxes in terms of animal welfare and environmental sustainability and other only ticks some. The one which has all the right criteria to meet brand specifications costs ten cents per square foot more than the other. Which would you buy?”. There was a pause and the brand spokesperson said that price was the key factor but that they may be able to justify buying the more expensive leather for some higher value models.

Price is king and then the environment is next

Many tanners feel that brands are asking for ever stricter criteria which requires investment and paperwork but then are NOT prepared to pay for the extra costs it takes to meet their own set requirements. Upgrading treatment plants, tannery equipment, switching to the latest chemical technologies or putting into place animal welfare and traceability programmes all costs money. An expense that must be passed onto the price of the final leather. While an attitude of seeking sustainable materials but not wanting to pay for it exists among some buyers, the tanner finds themselves between a rock and a hard place. Why bother to invest if the customer then buys from someone else based solely on price?

I have heard of further anecdotal evidence that even some global brands serving the luxury fashion business are also guilty of being swayed more towards the wishes of their stylists and designers than adhering to their own environmental protocols. In fact, I’ve heard that some luxury, high-end brands are less bothered about sticking to their own protocols than many mainstream, High St brands who are more selective about their suppliers but offer goods at lower prices.

Why bother putting such protocols in place if then you go and buy from a supplier based on price or design with no interest in where the material comes from or how it was made. It’s so hypocritical.

Privately, many tanners are very frustrated by this approach by some leather buyers, but may be committing commercial suicide if they spoke out.

I can think of leading brands such as Timberland and Kering Group, and many others, that are really backing their suppliers who invest in making the most sustainable but commercially realistic leathers. There is good buyer practice (especially from those with a good knowledge and training of leather as a material), but it is far from universal.

When brands start asking to know what a cow has been fed on throughout its life from a meat company that processes tens of thousands of animals (hides) a day then to me, it is clear to see that some people working for brands have a disconnect from the real-life complexities of the global supply chain.

The tanning industry should continue along the path of continuously improving environmental performance, but leather buyers should back leather makers that do the right thing and they should be prepared to pay more for the leather that meets the standards they themselves require. Back the words written in their own buying protocols and support suppliers with orders. Do not leave them out in the cold just to save a few dollars. Environmental sustainability has a cost, and not only to the planet.

Martin Ricker

Content Editor

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