With speakers from Lenzing and Naturtex as well as others covering design and blockchain (in this case to aid prevention of modern slavery), the session was about more than leather and served to widen the context within which we look at activities in the tanning industry.

In her report of the event, Véronique Saunier asked “who would have thought that blockchain technology could be discussed in the same breath as the benefits of customisation of consumer products and the necessity of collaboration between the different sectors of the fashion industry?”

“While profoundly philosophical at times, the conference was pragmatically informative and for many participants a true eye opener. Participating in the conference gave me a sustainable mind-set to make my sourcing decisions,” said Orla Kiely, senior accessories designer of the namesake brand.

That philosophical aspect arose since the conversation – there were no speeches – developed over the need for companies to work together in the supply chain to cover areas such as traceability, materials science and design to offer a totally sustainable package rather than a few brief highlights that might be promoted.

A key moment was when the panel realised that the very foundations of stakeholder capitalism were being questioned. Does the desire to maximum profit permit the compromises needed to pursue a sustainable agenda? Ralph Goodstone, the Vice-chair of Ethical Fashion Forum (Common Objective) and a former Marks and Spencer buyer noted that such thinking challenged the 1970s Chicago School of management approach that had declared the primary function of a business was to maximise shareholder reward. All other types of benefits would only flow from the business if that target was maintained. He noted that company imperatives were part of the reason that textile and clothing waste account for 20 per cent of landfill volumes, highlighting how urgent it is to find ways to discourage fast fashion.

Little did we know that only a few weeks later many top companies from the U.S. Business Roundtable ditched the idea of total shareholder primacy and argued that companies must have a properly laid out social purpose; a reason for being beyond merely making a few owners rich. In olden times, factories were embedded in their communities and for all the inequities that needed correction by factory laws, did generally recognise a community role. Since the rush to international supply chains, including exporting employment to lower cost nations, those roots have often been lost and whole communities have been left to struggle.
While the leather industry is labour intensive, tanneries are not, and the major cost of buildings and plant for a sizeable wet end makes changing locations expensive. The moves we saw in the late 90s mixed chasing customers who had built factories elsewhere or needing to close outdated plants stranded in city centres that had outgrown them; especially where there was no land to build effluent treatment plants. In places like Italy, where this could be resolved, the tanners stayed put despite needing to import most of their raw material.

While there has always been a certain dynamic tension with tanneries related to odour, in the main, well established and properly run companies have generally been appreciated. Modern units are cleaner, drier and have reduced the smells – often through changing to working semi-processed material – and are more often found in a more industrial zone. With much improved health and safety it becomes easier to set up open days for families and the local community. Where these have been held, they have been very successful, helping the company in many ways, including recruiting younger staff looking for a good career, and helping the consumer understand the values that lie behind leather.

Whatever “purpose” a tannery decides on playing its role as a good community citizen, having good relationships with civil authorities and local groups along with support for local charities and events ought to be part of it.

Mike Redwood
October 23, 2019

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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