To support this around the world, environmental laws related to what can be disposed of as waste are mostly quite good. What is variable is compliance, and enforcement.

Nearly every experienced tanner will have visited a tannery somewhere with a magnificent effluent treatment plant only to discover that is was not actually being used as it was cheaper to bribe an official than to run the plant. Or consider the current battle between tanners and the authorities in Jalandhar, in Indian Punjab. Tanners were found to be putting untreated liquid effluent into the communal drains and nineteen were closed, only to have the court order removed since they were already supposed to be closed. The tanners have complained that there is no adequate Central Effluent Treatment Plant.

A lot of tanners in the Indian subcontinent, and perhaps elsewhere, see both the building of effluent facilities and their running costs as somebody else’s problem. Across the border in Kasur in Pakistan, a famous historic tanning town with some great credentials to build upon, the tanning community were given a fabulous new effluent plant complete with running costs paid for a few years. I am advised that, now, that funding is finished and they are not keen to collect the monies involved to keep the facility running. This unwillingness to accept managerial responsibilities makes us despair.

The Chinese government, on the other hand, has become more serious about this issue. It has identified financial risk, pulling more citizens out of poverty, and stopping further environmental damage as its three major battles to win by 2020. For a while, the Chinese authorities and some businesses placed economic growth above environmental protection, but began to question this approach about ten years ago. They introduced new inspectors and we have seen some years of a determined approach as large numbers of small tanneries were ruthlessly closed or relocated. Unlike the Indian subcontinent, China was clear that small tanners could not afford their own effluent plants so had to be closed or forced into zones that had communal facilities.

The latest introduction by China on January 1 of this year was a new charging formula for discharged waste, which increases with the level and the volume of the discharge. The government has quietly been developing a nationwide list of the companies they believe to be discharging so no one will escape. They are also allowing the local government to keep a good part of the new tax, which they expect will reduce the chance of cheating. The levels are designed to encourage factories to upgrade equipment and processes to reduce or eliminate waste. There is a determined policy to achieve major industrial improvements and modernisation alongside this clean-up.

It is imperative to invest to diminish wastes

This is the approach we would have liked to see in Dhaka, where the move from Hazaribagh to Savar appears to be fraught with problems. Among other issues we have heard that in the absence of a system to remove soluble salts, such as common salt used in curing and pickling, the local Dhaleswari river is now being polluted with saline waste.

Other comments abound regarding housing arrangements for the workforce, proper protective work wear and the like. What is more, we learn that some tanneries are “secretly” still working in Hazaribagh which has no effluent facilities at all.

This all sounds a bit like Jalandhar, where the tanneries have been closed by the authorities, but consider that it is quite acceptable to continue to pollute albeit at a lower volume. The end of pipe is someone else’s responsibility.

Bangladesh leather exports were US$1.2 billion in fiscal 2016-17

Given the actual and potential export earnings from leather and leather using industries for countries such as Bangladesh, there is plenty of scope for them to deal properly with all matters of Corporate Social Responsibility. Bangladesh alone is reported to be expecting these to earn over US$1.2 billion in 2016-17.

Getting it right might create a culture where all industrialists, tanners included, feel responsible for the welfare of their workers, their community and the environment; and if they are not financially involved in the effluent side they will not be encouraged to update processes and plant to reduce or eliminate discharges.

Increasingly, what have been seen as wastes are now seen as raw materials – for biodiesel, for gelatine or for power generation. These are not always big profit earners but they do save the end of pipe clean-up costs and benefit everyone.

If you want to be a leading leather nation, you need to be leading in these ways also. And for countries where the leather industry is an important part of the economy, the other two risks that China talks about, financial risks and continued poverty, are best addressed by a stronger, properly responsible leather industry.

Dr Mike Redwood

January 11, 2018

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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