We need to sort this out

Redwood Comment
Published:  28 April, 2021
Dr Mike Redwood

If you watched APLF’s Digital Week, you will have realised that major organisations in the leather industry around the world have come to the conclusion that there are many good reasons to proclaim leather as an excellent material to play its role in a world facing the huge challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.

This has been particularly refreshing after decades of underinvestment in promoting leather or doing it in zero sum ways where tanners battled each other for market share, leaving the field for other materials to get on with eating our lunch. Hopefully, this change will spread widely through the thousands of medium sized and smaller tanners in all parts of the world so that we can see a change, not only in communication approaches, but also a major tightening up in manufacturing and management approaches to ensure compliance with basic standards as a minimum and preferably with best available practice.

It is vital that our industry brings to an end the poor practices still being pursued by some who do not feel responsible for the safe and fair treatment of their workforce or the proper management of chemicals in the tannery and in the waste they produce. The proportion of leather produced below acceptable standards is thought to be very small, but it is not clear how engaged our national and international associations are in measuring the situation.

Such misbehaviour was always bad for the image of leather, heightened by the ease with which emotive photos could be obtained and circulated. In times when our industry wants and needs to claim superior sustainability over inferior competitive materials based on fossil fuels, having such segments – however small – is infinitely more damaging for the brand and our employment hopes elsewhere. We know that in a number of locations workers are without protective clothing, and water courses are ruined by untreated waste. While such dreadful behaviour continues, anywhere in the world, the leather industry will continue to suffer and all promotion of it will be made more difficult.

It is clearly difficult when we see the saga over Hazaribagh in Bangladesh has been ongoing for over twenty years, and despite spending tens of millions of dollars in moving to Savar, it remains largely unresolved. The Bangladesh Government appears to be planning a “Leather Park” adjacent to this Savar BSCIC Tannery Industrial Estate in Hemayetpur to include the missing housing, along with research and manufacturing units. It is vital that the global leather industry pressure them to fully complete the central effluent plant (CEPT), enforce labour laws along with ensuring that protective clothing is issued and used.

Over the last few years, we have steadily seen governments in many parts of the world move to curtail these informal clusters that slide below the regulations through lack of enforcement or corruption. From China to Mexico, we have seen strict action being taken so the momentum would be with our industry leaders if they took this more seriously and found ways to put pressure towards terminating this industrial misbehaviour.

Even in more advanced economies, the pressure on government finances mean that regulations are quite often not as well enforced as they were even a decade ago, throwing more responsibility onto our own industrial management to be doing the right thing, at the very moment when society requires a better contract with industry through its ESG and CSR demands.

As an industry, it is no longer possible to live in a silo and proclaim your leather as a wonderful material, but argue that we are not at all related to that not so good person over the wall. This is a world of global communications, of global social media and we cannot escape from the reality of what happens elsewhere. It is also a time when we are promising transparency in all CSR matters, and uncomfortable although it might be, it does not permit us to light up only one part of the picture and try and leave the rest in the dark.

In some places, the problems lie in plants that are far too small to be viable even with a central treatment plant and they do need to be closed, but in places like Bangladesh, both the raw material and the employment is important to both the local community and the larger leather industry that has been trading internationally for thousands of years. Bangladesh should be able to benefit from its raw material, and its workers should be able to earn a fair living in health and safety as tannery employees do elsewhere in the world.

Surely it is not beyond our capabilities as an industry to sort this out.

Mike Redwood
April 28, 2021

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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