Transparency in the supply chain is not merely a box to tick

Redwood Comment
Published:  18 November, 2020
Credit: Annie Spratt

Traceability has become a major new theme of doing business in many spheres. Apart from the complexity of split leathers, following hides and skins back to source should not be impossible. 

It is much more difficult to follow garments back through makers to fibres, be they natural or petroleum derived. How often have we seen in the fashion industry a modern well-equipped factory providing the façade for a subterranean network of unscrupulous operators in their hell hole gulags? This is not helped by recent concerns around cotton from western China – which is exactly the reason why this column echoes year after a year a plea to brands and retailers not to replace skilled buyers and quality staff with clipboard-based audits done every couple of years. Skilled individuals who can judge capacity, tell whether an effluent plant is, in fact, being used or is only for show, and can look behind the scenes without being misled by theatre or bribes.

It used to be so simple. Working in Hodgson’s heavy leather yard outside Hull in my first vacation from university, I was tasked to learn the marks cut beside the tail of every hide we bought which showed in lines and crosses the weight category and in one simply small stamp the identity of the abattoir. All were domestic and there were about 1900 abattoirs in the UK, so I needed a pocket-book to keep track of them, although you soon knew the main suppliers. The smaller, more local abattoirs of that time also meant it was much simpler to connect directly with the farmers, a useful aspect as husbandry for sheep and bovine animals was always a consideration.

The old-fashioned concept of talking to each other
Today’s supply chains have become much more complex and the farmers more distant, with finishing and feedlots adding extra layers in some areas of the world. Yet, the pandemic is driving us towards simplification and although traceability has embraced independent audits and digital trails, we should be sure to introduce the old-fashioned concept of talking to each other. Over the last two decades, we have seen the quality of raw material steadily deteriorate, even from some of the most premium sources. It is time to find a way to reverse this. Tanners should be more creative with lower grades to avoid commoditisation, but carelessly reducing the proportion of premium quality hides and skins is a foolish starting point. We must play our part in understanding what is happening and helping push for a change in direction.

We need the meat packers to fight for the meat business
We also need to talk to meat packers, abattoirs and farmers about fighting for the meat and livestock businesses against the various pressure groups who are making ever more threatening noises with their warped view of the science. The leather industry has only in the last twenty-four months learned to fight for its own material and has a huge agenda to deal with: issues in Bangladesh, pushing for legislation to protect the term leather, getting rid of greenwashing, stopping leather processing being termed toxic and wasteful in water and energy, all before starting to educate a new generation of urbanites in the value of leather as a long lasting, natural by-product material.

We cannot fight the meat and livestock industry’s battles at the same time as our own. We need them to get more active all around the world. There was no reaction to Livestock’s Long Shadow which did so much harm in 2006, and not that much to the EAT Lancet report in 2019 which was funded and presented by animal rights activists. It is as though Professor Frank Mitloehner (whose recent ILM Podcast is a must-listen) has been left as a lone voice for the last decade or more. As he says, the industry has been too fragmented to sort itself out. With COP-26 now only a year away, it is set to make some big decisions on climate change and biodiversity, which will be loaded with errors if society does not start to understand the vital role played by well managed livestock. Some more strong logical voices could be enough; it is the silence of resignation which, as it was with leather, is so worrying.

Recent research on agricultural methane from livestock as part of the natural carbon cycle along with a better understanding of carbon sequestration involved in long term grassland and maintaining better soil offers plenty of solid scientific material. There is outstanding reference material from the Oxford Martin School and the University of California. But the livestock and meat industries need to play their part and use it to move the debate in the next 12 months.

Transparency in the supply chain is not merely a box to tick. Getting it right links into a myriad of vital tasks that we must sign up for to protect our industry and make it better for the future.

Mike Redwood
November 18, 2020

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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