The EU Social and Environmental Report for tanneries

Redwood Comment
Published:  09 December, 2020
Dr Mike Redwood

The presentation of the Leather: Social and Environmental Report: 2020 by Cotance and industriAll-Europe a week ago was very well done. Given that it was run as a virtual event with a long list of speakers from many countries, and translations provided in half a dozen languages, there was a lot to potentially go wrong. 

Yet, all went admirably and those who had the opportunity to tune in were able to enjoy some excellent content, not least a quite inspiring talk from the senior European Commission official Anna Athanasopoulou, who was able to contextualise the European leather industry within the overall EU approach to post-pandemic recovery and their sizeable funding for green and digital investments.

The Social and Environmental Report, which is free to download, is an inspiring document. Tanneries across the EU contributed so that it does provide representative data. The scope of the work considerably widens the environmental approach by adding in employment and social matters which are important to modern ESG thinking and cannot be ignored despite the fact that EU economies are more advanced than most. Alluding to the old marketing rule of table stakes, one speaker made the point that these areas are no longer “nice to have” but vital to future survival and prosperity.

Modern day slavery has been noted in a number of sectors such as agriculture and some textile areas, so tanners need to be watchful, especially with any temporary staff. Also, the pandemic has led to many families relying on food banks and other forms of aid despite being in employment, harking back to the late 19th century times in the UK when the head of Booth Group used his leather industry profits to fund a huge research project into the working poor.

Listeners were surprised to learn that the average European tannery has only 21 employees, down from 24 in 2000. 33,000 employees work in 1600 tanneries with the small artisan units, mostly serving fashion customers, more in the south of Europe. There is also quite a number of very small vegetable tanners spread throughout, all performing an important role. The immense multiplier into jobs and revenue which this leather production creates appears to now be recognisedm, along with the role of leather in the circular economy from its origins in the meat and dairy industries.

Big gains in the reduction of the use of energy and water were reported for recent years and details were provided for the levels of chemical usage and the nature of waste produced. Outcomes clearly show the implications of processing more fresh hides – less chloride - and reducing use of chrome tanning – higher COD.

One significant caveat was raised by Kerry Senior, speaking as the Secretary of ICT (International Council of Tanners), and that was a fear that in some circles the science related to leather can become overshadowed by more political beliefs about the consumption of meat and the use of livestock. It was important that such views are not allowed to influence decisions.

It is a well made point thaht a reduction in meat consumption has become standard chatter as we move towards COP-26, and objective thinking about chemicals such as chromium in leather making has long since been overwhelmed by irrational prejudice.

That having been said, Cotance is to be commended for demonstrating the valid and useful outcomes of another important piece of work in the European leather industry’s toolbox.

Mike Redwood
December 9, 2020

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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