Who’s auditing the auditors?

Sam Setter
Published:  16 March, 2022
Credit: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock.com

In the latest Against the Grain, Sam Setter expresses his concerns over the state of auditing in the leather industry. 

First, I would like to express my solidarity with the people of Ukraine who are enduring unmeasurable pain and suffering from the unprovoked and illegal invasion by the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Note that I say the Russian President, and not the Russian people, who are also unnecessarily suffering the deaths of members of their armed forces. Thankfully, most brands have temporarily pulled out of Russia out of solidarity with the Ukrainians. Defending business is great, but not over dead bodies.

The February edition of Lineapelle in Milan is now behind us and the feedback is that it delivered as promised. The organisers promised about 950 exhibitors and indeed there were many more than at the September 2021 edition.

Unfortunately, there were a few empty stands, for instance, the stand of the Japanese Tanners’ Association (JLIA) members was closed as Japanese citizens still face Covid-19 travel restrictions and quarantines. Similarly, there were very few visitors from China nor from other countries in the Asian continent. As in September 2021, exhibitors were quite happy with their results and noted that whoever came, came for business.

That’s also why the corridors did not seem crowded because there were no “tourists” and whoever had done business got back into their car, train or plane and headed back home. In fact, on the first and last days, there were far fewer visitors than on day two. A sort of hit and run. If this impression is right, then fair organisers will have to think of new formulas for their fairs.

Concerns over tannery audits

My biggest takeaway from Lineapelle was a shocking realisation that had nothing to do with the fair. I met a tanner who had recently been environmentally audited and awarded with an audit recognition. I was 100% sure that he had neither an in-house effluent treatment plant, nor was his plant connected to an outside central effluent treatment plant that is efficient and compliant with existing protocols.

When asked, he explained proudly that he had split the tannery into three units within the same compound, and that his finishing unit had obtained the certification because he could collect the wastewater from the finishing plant and transport it by truck to a desalination unit. If this is true, then I wonder why the supply chain of his crust was not considered in his audit, because his wet-blue and retanning operations are definitely not compliant and are located next door within the same industrial compound. What about the supply chain traceability we are hearing so much about?

It makes me think of another tanner I wrote about previously saying that he imported traceable wet-blue from audited tanneries in order to be audited himself and was awarded with a recognition. One wonders how many audited and awarded tanneries are in this same situation of being allowed to theoretically split the tannery into sections and obtain a reward for a selected part of the process, particularly where audit awards are growing rapidly in certain countries and regions.

The above examples, together with anecdotal hearsay, suggest that in many cases consultants, some of which also seem to be official auditors, assist tanneries through a consulting fee on how to circumvent certain protocol requirements by manipulating data to make the tannery look better for an audit. This is a concern. Such cases would undermine the efforts of all of the other companies who have followed the protocols properly.

If I can find this kind of information out, then I am sure others can as well and the credibility of the leather sector would be tarnished, contrary to what the auditing process was supposed to obtain in the first place. It is not the quantity of audited tanneries that should count but the quality and the objectivity of the audit. Audits should not be regarded as a cash machine for any of the parties involved. 

Sam Setter

samsetter2020@gmail.com