While conference after conference on the subject makes one feel that perhaps the subject has been has had its day, and the word itself is badly abused by all and sundry the theme of sustainability looks likely to remain central to much of the leather industry in 2018. This is because sustainability is a process rather than a destination and it is subject that continues to be expanded to include wider aspects of corporate social responsibility.

In 2017, I was asked by APLF to interview Hans van Haarst, CEO of the Dutch leather chemicals business Smit & zoon, just after he had presented the company’s “Product Passport” plans. It is easy to dismiss these initiatives as headline grabbing PR since most chemical companies are looking to find a way into the sustainability space.

But talking to Hans van Haarst quickly dispelled such thoughts. It was clear that the Passport concept is merely one element in a whole series to not only make Smit & zoon a better place but to influence, ‘catalyse’ as they like to describe it, the whole supply network of the leather industry. As he put it to me they want “to provide tools, products and services to demonstrate to the end consumer that leather products are sustainable”.

To create a good vocabulary of sustainability in the value chain is relatively easy but to support that with data allows for transparency and education helps customers understand how to interpret and use that data. In the leather sector, companies have used trade secrets rather than IP protection to stay ahead of the competition, but today’s requirements for compliance with regulations and standards makes such secrecy harder to manage. Smit & zoon believes it is better for all to be quite open. That helps return more technical skill back to the tannery who can then look at the implications of using different materials not only for the leather quality but for the impact on waste streams, liquid and solid.

Hans Van Haarst believes that the chemistry of making leather chemicals will become more complex, but that tanners must know what they are using and all the implications. A refreshing way to look forward into 2018.

Dr Mike Redwood

January 2, 2018


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