At the end of November 2021, the Bangladesh government ran an investment seminar on the leather industry; it was a short but useful session. The forward-thinking attitude of many Bangladesh tanners and shoemakers was apparent and there were two significant takeaways.

Firstly, most of the speakers understood the need to resolve the major environmental issues they continue to face, although the chairman of the seminar was not very willing to dwell on the subject. Secondly, some shoemakers spoke about using more synthetics, in part at least as a result of global disquiet over the environmental credentials of Bangladeshi made leather.

Press reports this week indicate that both were all too timely. The new tannery waste treatment plant at Savar has been closed for non-compliance, with previous comments suggesting that large parts are not working, the input piping is too small for the tanneries output and there is no provision for solid waste.

Non-leather footwear could benefit

Claims are also being made that non-leather footwear will become the biggest export segment after textiles, having grown at 20% per annum over the past five years.

For a nation with a strong leather industry, good raw material, some excellent tanneries and thousands of workers dependent on leather making, this is a difficult moment.

After a successful COP26 for Bangladesh, their leather industry should be leading the charge for sustainable materials, not going into reverse. The rise of synthetics at a time when consumers are starting to realise the dangers associated with petrochemical-based materials is a tragedy for the planet.

Bad image for leather

As well as being bad news for Bangladesh, this spells problems for the wider leather industry, emphasising the need for the global industry to be well coordinated. Leather as a material is also a brand, hence the battle to stop other materials from misusing the term to confuse consumers.

Brands do have sub-brands in the way leather has French calf, English saddle leather and Italian leather, but all depend on consumer acceptance of leather as a valid material.

As an industry, we must find ways to address these “hot spots” around the world that are damaging the leather image faster than a large hole in a fire bucket empties it of water.

With 30 industry associations having joined together to produce the leather manifesto for COP26 and Leather Naturally working with the IULTCS to ensure their extensive and freely available educational material is scientifically accurate, it should be possible to find ways for our organisations to intervene in these situations.

Building functional effluent plants is not new

Since the 1970s, we have seen central effluent treatment plants being successfully built throughout the world. The technology and costs are well understood and, even in some difficult circumstances, plants have been satisfactorily commissioned. Most recently we have seen one completed in Egypt aided by the renowned expertise of Italian company Italprogetti.

It was nearly 20 years ago that the idea of resolving longstanding issues in Bangladesh by relocating and building a functional central waste treatment facility was first raised. It is hard to countenance the corruption, the dysfunctionality and the immense financial waste involved over this time.

All the while workers suffered in unsafe conditions, the local environment was damaged beyond repair and the world press was given facts and photo opportunities with which to attack the entire leather industry.

Yet the need for large numbers of good jobs via making use of local materials should drive the Bangladesh government to get the situation corrected once and for all, while the tanning association with the backing of the International Council of Tanners should help update specifications to ensure the reparations meet the full needs.

If solid wastes have been “overlooked”, then treating these might well be a good source of biogas, much needed in a country well behind on its plan to shift to renewable energy. The income would likely cover running costs.

This is going to be a major task, but it must be undertaken to help the deserving poor in Bangladesh, to aid the country in its ambition to become middle class and to prevent further damage to the global leather industry’s reputation.

Mike Redwood

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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