Tanners must dominate the reopening dialogue, not be led by it

Redwood Comment
Published:  06 May, 2020
Dr Mike Redwood

The exceptional, and controversial, use of an Executive Order to reopen meatpackers in the US that had been shut because of outbreaks of Coronavirus brings with it a requirement for us all to understand more about the resilience and integrity of our supply chain. 

Part of the problem appears to be that the workforce in some abattoirs has to stand too closely together, which is also a problem in many of the factories that use leather. Yet, the big companies and brands between which tanneries are squeezed often appear to pare back organisations to the minimum so that absolute maximum profit can be extracted.

Not all work in this way. I had many years working for a U.S. sports business and when we began laying down health and safety rules for factories we were sourcing from, I well remember that our parent company decided to ensure the same regulations were implemented in our own overseas plants. One aspect I wholly approved of was a space requirement around and between every worker. It was not the much talked about two metres, but it was much better than what I routinely observed visiting garment, glove and leather goods factories all round the world where proximity has quite often been equated with efficiency.

We know that the term Corporate Social Responsibility has been extended by financiers into the wider criteria of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) to assess businesses. The E and G can be more easily measured and demonstrated with charts and graphs while the “S” has become the silent element. A statement along the lines of “our employees are our main asset” in a mission statement and displayed on office and factory walls is too often deemed enough.

Social should be comprehensive and deal with areas such as suppliers and customers, their payments (and yours to them) and their work standards. It should look at community involvement such as charitable giving and volunteering: and it should specifically demand that working conditions show high regard for employees’ health and safety, and economic stability.

The modern tannery has a good record with its workforce and its communities
In the main, modern tanneries can stand proud in this regard. The very few that I work closely with today are exemplary, and it is a matter of pride to be associated with them. I fully accept that there are some worrying exceptions which the leather industry must work harder to eliminate. We also must note that even in Europe and the U.S. agriculture, including abattoirs, some aspects of the garment industry and occasionally tanneries are prone to modern day slave labour and constant vigilance is required. But the modern tanning world has a good record with its workforce and its communities, and has rarely taken the trouble to tell this to its stakeholders in the way it sometimes promotes environmental upgrades. Seeing the significance given to pulling people out of poverty and providing them with a brighter future, highlighted in the seminal Brundtland Report defining sustainability, more should be made of it.

Tanneries do have another advantage in the time of pandemics, and that is being less labour intensive and with easier layouts for worker spacing than others in the leather supply chain. In most tanneries only a few tasks require constantly working closer than two metres from a colleague, and a little reorganisation should avoid most of those, even with whole hide production.

Where workers do get closer, the sensible regulations agreed, and very well explained by a webinar by UNIC regarding gloves, face masks and face shields being provided, should be adopted. Staggered shifts and break times, with regular cleaning and sanitising, plus reorganisation of the social spaces and lockdown regarding visitors means that all over the world tanneries should be able to offer a safe space to work for employees at all levels. And banning meetings, except by remote connection tools, sounds like a first idea to boost productivity. I have previously noted that some of the companies with tanneries in China like Prime Asia and Isa Tantec have explained in detail very good systems for ensuring workers health as well. There is now plenty of good advice.

We need to declare ourselves more powerfully in the supply chain, in the marketplace, with our designers and consumers. There are many elements to this, but as the Great Lockdown comes to an end in its untidy way, the leather industry has to emerge in a positive frame of mind. We need consumers to think about things a little more, to buy less and buy better, and we need designers to use leather better and think about life and repair when they mix it with other components. And we need resilience in the structure of the industry from top to bottom, which requires everyone in the supply network looking after their workers, their communities and their business partners properly.

It is time to buy up all those cheap hides no one seems to want and sell them hard to a world that soon will learn that leather is the very best material to use for so many things. A hard and positive sell, as long as simultaneously we demand of ourselves that the ‘Social’ in ESG is made to really count.

It is time to lead the dialogue and to stop chasing it.

Mike Redwood
May 6, 2020

mike@internationalleathermaker.com
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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