There was a time with the Supershow as well as the footwear shows that it seemed to be trade fairs from January 1 until Easter and executives used to be posting ridiculous “out of office” messages that covered from now to eternity. Especially when you knew perfectly well they were watching everything that moved in the world live on their Blackberries. And judging by many of the people at this year’s ISPO doing it with a GoPro camera on their shoulder they are now recording every moment. There is no hiding place for today’s executive.

I was at ISPO to talk about traceability in the leather industry at a European Outdoor Group Sustainability Breakfast (EOG). Its easier to trace leather than plastic, as every skin comes from a single animal and you can, more or less stick a label on it and watch it through. Harder when you are working with suede splits, especially if you want to buy from a specialist plant, but still possible.

Working on trust

What do you need? A decent system, a bit of leather/tannery knowledge and some business sense. And a willingness to visit relentlessly to have a look at whether the practise and the promise are working. An audit, however thorough and honest, is only as accurate as the day it was done. It is not easy if people set out to cheat you, but the one great skill good buyers have is choosing to work only with individuals and companies they trust. While localisation in the leather industry is increasing hides and leather have been traded internationally since the beginning of trading thousands of years ago. And while we generally want to be doing some things closer to the raw origin and others closer to the market (both if it makes sense) international trade is important for increasing global GDP and pulling up the poorer nations.

EOG members know the world is not perfect

And here is another point, which I think the EOG members did get – don’t hide the truth from them about our industry. Just like the sports goods executive the leather industry cannot – must not – hide behind an “out of office” message. What I mean is that we must stand up for the whole industry and not pretend bits of it that lead to difficult questions have nothing to do with us. EOG members have been at serious CSR for a long time. They reward honesty and integrity, and accept imperfection if the direction of travel is correct. The Greenpeace report “Slaughter of the Amazon” attacked the whole leather industry not just Brazil. It had some valid points, and we did learn from it and make changes. Yet it was produced on the basis that the big leather consuming brands made the softest target, as opposed to the bigger culprits – the EU for forcing their pig farmers to start buying soya meal from Brazil instead of the wastes they have eaten for thousands of years, or the sugar cane growers (for automobile fuel) digging up the long term grassland that is just fabulous at sequestering carbon. Those grasslands should have been left for the cattle. Whether or not Brazilian raw material is used in your tannery you should be supporting all that has been done in Brazil in recent years. If the whole leather industry and the top brands had combined we could have had even better outcomes.

The leather industry must pull Bangladesh

And Bangladesh is not a lot different. Yes: the pictures are terrible for the leather industry and our Brand Leather. No worker should be without proper footwear and workwear (why don’t the buyers demand this?) and yes it is utterly wrong to let tanneries send untreated waste off into local streams and rivers. But it doesn’t mean that the leather industry should preach against these places and use them to evidence how good they are by comparison. The new central waste treatment plant is currently under construction and the timetable for the relocation to Savar has started to become real. We need to support them to get it right and I know our members in Leather Naturally! want to help these weak tanning zones around the world, of which Bangladesh is perhaps the worst, not drive them into the ground.

There is no hiding place. But if with every issue we face from animal welfare, from difficult chemistry, water and waste management and weak compliance we argue our case accepting we are not perfect I remain convinced that brands such as those in EOG who are true corporate citizens will stay and work with us to get it right.

Mike Redwood

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: