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Essay fifteen: Corporate social responsibility in the leather industry

Examples of corporate social responsibility in the leather industry

In spite of frequent reports on film, in print and especially online of damage caused to the environment and to people’s wellbeing by tanneries, there is a rich reservoir of factual evidence of good practice across the industry. The Tannery of the Year Awards programme has yielded close to 50 eye-witness accounts of excellence in corporate social responsibility (CSR). This essay explains the framework of Tannery of the Year and picks out ten exceptional examples to have come to light in the course of the competition.

Tannery of the Year is more of an awards programme than a competition for tanners in all parts of the globe that World Leather magazine launched in 2009. There is an unbroken thread running through the seven years and five completed programmes of the Tannery of the Year initiative so far and the International Leather Forum in Paris in September 2007. A group of senior representatives of the International Union of Leather Technologists and Chemists Societies (IULTCS) were the main drivers of the Paris event and they used it to lay down a stern challenge to the industry.
There may or may not have existed a time when tanners hardly had to try to convince their customers or, by extension, end consumers about the qualities of leather, the appeal of the material: its beauty, its versatility, its sensuality, its durability, its ability to grow even more beautiful with age, its renewability and sustainability used to be common knowledge. What was clear, though, was that in the twenty-first century no one was entitled to assume that the public or sourcing professionals in finished product companies still knew about these qualities, or cared. No one was going to make leather’s arguments or fight leather’s battles for it. Tanners, traditionally modest and happy to keep a low profile, were going to have to raise their voices and shout about the good things they do, and they were going to have to help each other and encourage each other in carrying that work out.

Unbroken thread

Among comments on the day, one of the main driving forces behind the International Leather Forum, Marc Folachier, said: “In the framework of sustainable development, a renewable, recyclable, natural product has to be a good thing.” Reg Hankey, chief executive of tanning group Pittards, said: “We are in an industry with low margins. We are set up to fight each other, and we need to break that down and start collaborating where we can.” However, a future president of IULTCS, Dietrich Tegtmeyer of Lanxess, said on the day: “Leather, even though it has unique properties that simply cannot be matched by anything man-made, will become more and more of a commodity. We’re sawing through the branch we’re sitting on.”
Not only were many in the world outside unaware of the advantages of leather, some have been actively campaigning against the industry for years. In some cases, these campaigns are well meaning and have come from a concern for the environment, a concern, however, that we contend is often misplaced or misdirected, as the 15 essays in the Nothing to Hide series make clear. In other cases, leather is the butt of untruths peddled by companies that stand to gain if consumers and brands ditch the material and choose to use plastic instead. Some criticism is certainly justified. Tanneries have, in the past, paid too little attention to waste management and have been reluctant to change recipes, processes, practices and procedures to protect land and rivers. There are certainly still questions to raise over practices in some parts of the world. But there are also many positive stories that tanners could have been sharing with the world for many years but had not. The platform for telling those stories seemed not to exist.

A new platform for positive stories

The team behind Tannery of the Year came away from Paris in 2007 thinking that the call to action was correct but that as a niche magazine produced by a small, family-owned publishing company, there was little World Leather could do to help. And then it thought again. It seemed clear that part of the leather industry’s problem was that it is, or has been, poor at blowing its own trumpet. Tanners are geniuses at making leather, but they have been slightly less good until recently at promoting and celebrating their good work and sharing their success stories. World Leather realised it was in a good position to provide a platform to tell those stories and that, if it could convince good tanners to open their doors, the magazine could help them answer the Paris challenge and make a difference. It was against this backdrop that Tannery of the Year began, with the first final taking place in Hong Kong in March 2010.
In the early days senior figures in the leather industry, on hearing about the idea of an editorial team knocking on the door of a tannery and expecting to spend two days inside asking for detailed information were doubtful about Tannery of the Year’s chances of success. They said: “No tannery will ever open its doors to you.” Forty-six tanneries and 26 different countries later, and counting, the programme has demonstrated that World Leather’s instinct was correct, that good tanners everywhere were ready to answer the Paris challenge and were happy to share their knowledge, their generosity, their hospitality and details of the work they do, inside and outside their production plants.

Part of the package

They have given detailed information and shown evidence of their investments (in terms of time, money and effort) in projects to help the people who work in the leather industry and the people who live in the wider communities around leather-making plants. They have demonstrated a commitment to innovation in environmental management, leading to (in the very best instances) zero-waste operations. They have also encouraged the manufacturers of leather chemicals and tanning machinery who are their suppliers to innovate so that the volumes of water, chemicals and energy required to make leather will keep coming down.
Corporate social responsibility is now part of the formula for producing leather in most parts of the world. Tanners no longer have the luxury of just making leather; they have to illustrate good practice and try hard to generate good will too. In other words, the Paris challenge remains as real today as it was in 2007. Fortunately, what Tannery of the Year demonstrates is that the list of tanners willing to embrace transparency and share their stories is long. Since 2009, World Leather has devoted around 370 pages to these reports, publishing almost a quarter of a million words and 700 technical photographs on the subject of CSR in the tanning industry. It is a substantial body of work. The examples that follow in this Nothing to Hide essay clearly demonstrate tanners’ commitment well, but are nevertheless just a tiny proportion of all the instances of good practice in CSR that Tannery of the Year has been able to bring to the attention of people inside and—importantly—outside the leather industry. This exercise is ongoing and is certain to generate many more eye-witness reports of tanners’ good work in future issues of the magazine.

Education in the real world

Coming Indústria e Comércio de Couros in the Brazilian state of Goiás offers an excellent example of CSR, especially when you consider that the site of the tannery is in an agricultural area, some distance from the nearest road. With about 400 people on its payroll, the company realised that 1,800 people are directly dependent on the tannery for their daily bread. The tannery has established two important educational projects. About four kilometres from the plant, beside a peaceful lake, there are two classrooms, equipped with audio-visual equipment, in which adult-learning programmes take place for Coming employees. This began in 2010, and the numbers of workers volunteering to come for three hours before beginning their shift at the tannery has been steadily increasing. Some come to supplement the schooling they had as children; others are starting more or less from scratch to learn to read and write.
The company lays on bus connections between the centre and the tannery and adult literacy specialists travel from the state capital, Goiânia, to teach. Ten years ago, Coming also set up an early-learning and children’s day-care centrei in a former favela (shanty town), funding the entire project, including the building and appointing a dedicated team of education and health professionals, care assistants and cook. Fifty local children aged between three and six attend the kindergarten, learning and playing in a healthy environment, eating breakfast, lunch and mid-morning and afternoon snacks, all free of charge. Treated with suspicion and disbelief, parents were initially convinced that the tannery had an ulterior motive or that they would be asked for money if they sent their children to the school. Coming’s only motivation, however, was to do good for the community. The centre meets all the requirements of government inspectors, but goes further in making medical and dental care available to the children. Providing childcare has given parents the opportunity to find work in other towns and villages and improve their standards of living.
Bojos Tanning, based in Santiago, in the Dominican Republic, also sees education as a vehicle for development. The better educated people are, the more prosperity and development will result. The head of the company and his wife play a prominent role in a programme that offers pre-school care and learning to children, both from their workers’ families and those from other companies in Santiago.ii There are currently three centres in different parts of the city at the moment and more are planned. There are around 150 children in each, with ages ranging from just 45 days to seven years, which is when children in the Dominican Republic start primary school. The centres open at six o’clock in the morning and stay open until six o’clock in the evening, and the children can have breakfast, a morning snack, lunch and an afternoon snack there. They learn to read and write, make a start at learning English and at using computers, and all of this is funded by the companies in the city’s special Free Zones, with parents paying nothing. The head of the tannery is also president of the Santiago Free Zone Association, and has told his peers that knowledge will make a business innovative and creative, qualities that he wishes to see beyond his own company.

Life and death

Heller-Leder in Germany believes in making its CSR policy widely known and ensures that all its customers know about its initiatives so that they, in turn, can reassure their customers. Some years ago, following the death from leukaemia of a popular member of the Heller-Leder team, the company actively encouraged employees to take part in an international bone-marrow donor-matching initiative. This donor search took place under the auspices of a not-for-profit organisation, DKMS, set up in Germany in 1991.iii As a result, Heller-Leder employees were able to save the lives of leukaemia patients in the US and in the UK.

Help for communities

Atlantic Leather, based in Iceland, has developed innovative technology to process fish skins, adding value to an abundant by-product of Iceland’s principal industry. As a result, it is now able to process some 600,000 skins a year that would have otherwise been disposed of as just another waste product. It is now working with an Icelandic aid agency, Friend of Africa, to train fishing communities in Kenya to process skins to crust for export to Atlantic Leather for finishing.iv Those communities are fishing 300,000 tonnes of Nile perch, an invasive and predatory species, every year from Lake Victoria and used to eat the skins if no other food was available. Turning them into crust and exporting them to Iceland has proved to be a much better way to add value to the raw material at their disposal and increase earnings. The Nile perch now provides one of the more exotic leathers in the Icelandic company’s portfolio.
Tanners are hard at work on CSR in other parts of Africa too. Ideas to improve the living conditions of the community where the Ethiopia Tannery Share Company has its base (close to the village of Ejersa) feature prominently in the leather producer’s strategy. The tannery has a clinic attached to it that also serves the wider community and it now enjoys a supply of clean drinking water, thanks to the company paying the contribution on behalf of the community to gain a matching government water grant. The village also enjoys a shower block with hot water provided by the tannery. Possibly of greater CSR significance is that the company supports the local school in a manner that most would not have considered. School teachers eat in the tannery’s canteen; there is a dearth of education professionals in the area, so much so that the children have to go to school in two shifts.v As a result teachers need a proper meal between the morning and afternoon classes. Pupils eat at home but they are no strangers to the company, coming regularly for educational visits, which include the surrounding land. Ethiopia Tannery Share Company has planted some 1,500 mango trees, hundreds of avocado trees as well as coffee plants and has numerous beehives. The bounty from this is also directly benefiting the community.

Brazil’s women of the future

Family-run tannery Couro do Norte, based in the Brazilian state of Pará, supports a local refuge that was set up to protect young girls who have been victims of sexual abuse. The Raio da Luz (Ray of Light) centre provides a safe place to stay for girls aged from 10-15 who have suffered abuse often in their own families.vi Couro do Norte’s support sees it provide food and personal hygiene products for the girls at the centre. The tannery makes use of its contacts within the meat industry to buy whole cows, the meat from which is donated to the refuge so that the girls and the people who care for them have enough to eat. The shelter was opened in 1996 and is run by the Centro de Valorização da Criança (Centre for Recognising the Value of Children). Since Couro do Norte began supporting the initiative, brothers Fabio and Leandro Barbosa, managing director and human resources and production director respectively, have both paid visits to the refuge. Leandro tries to visit the centre on a weekly basis and spends time on each trip listening to the personal histories of the girls and those who work with them. Fabio gives his brother great credit for this, admitting that he finds it difficult to visit the centre due to just how sad the stories of the girls living there are. Those from the Couro do Norte team who visit Raio da Luz are determined to help build up the confidence that the girls have in themselves in the hope that they will realise their potential and go on to have bright, positive futures in spite of their difficult histories.

Organic from source in Sweden

Tärnsjö Garveri in Sweden is not content to just monitor its own processes in the pursuit of sustainable leather. By sourcing hides from farms that are accredited as fully organic, as well as maintaining its own commitment to chrome-free tanning, Tärnsjö makes the claim to be the “only tannery in the world with 100% certified organic leather”.vii Midway through 2016, 70% of the leather that the tannery produces can be classified as certified organic because the hides used come from farms that meet the standards of Swedish organisation KRAV, which is responsible for the certification of ecological, sustainable agriculture in the country. The KRAV label indicates that a product has been made with attention to the impact on the environment, potential health implications and with social responsibility in mind.
For farms to be classified as fully organic, their animals must be grass- and silage-fed without additives; antibiotics must only be used when needed for specific treatments, holding pens must meet approved standards and meat must be fully traceable back to the animal at birth. The KRAV certification receives third-party support from the global independent network Control Union, which administers the Organic Content Standard (OCS) for non-food products. Because farms from which the hides originate are KRAV-certified, the tannery satisfies the OCS for Control Union and is entitled to call the leather it makes from KRAV hides 100% certified organic.

Scottish tannery happy to feel the heat

Bridge of Weir Leather’s thermal energy plant is a clear example of CSR, and its willingness to share the concept also helps set the Scottish Leather Group (SLG)-owned company apart. The thermal energy plant was opened in July 2010 at the home of the group’s NCT wet blue plant and Bridge of Weir tannery.viii It was the result of a £6 million investment, all of which the SLG provided, and forms part of the organisation’s zero waste strategy. The aim of the plant is to use more than 25,000 tonnes of waste each year to produce energy for use at the Bridge of Weir facility. This helps the group lower its energy costs substantially and permits it to market its collections as low-carbon leather. The thermal energy plant also means that SLG has been able to cut drastically the volume of waste it sends to landfill, not just reducing its environmental impact but also avoiding the costs associated with waste management. Solid waste from all SLG’s sites is transported to the plant to be turned into heat energy and oil. The energy is then used to heat water for the tanning operations at Bridge of Weir and to power driers on the site. SLG has made it clear that it would be happy for the technology used in the plant to be shared so that other companies can reduce their landfill waste and energy costs. Despite the high cost of construction and the long period of time it took to come to fruition, Bridge of Weir feels the technology is now ready to roll out more widely and that its efforts so far have been a small price to pay for reducing its impact on the planet.

Empowering women in India

Tata International is committed to empowering its workforce and to making a significant impact on the lives of the people in the surrounding community. Based in the Indian town of Dewas, an important focus of the company is ensuring women have the same opportunities as men when it comes to finding employment. Adjacent to Tata’s tannery are units for manufacturing footwear, clothing and bags made from leather. These units employ 2,000 people, a significant proportion of whom are women. Many young women from the local area are employed in the footwear factory that was set up in 2008. The company struggled at first to recruit workers for the factory, before coming up with an innovative idea. The decision was taken to visit local villages and speak to the parents of young women. Tata managed to convince some of the parents that allowing their daughters to enter the workplace for the first time would be a positive move. The mission to boost the lives of women in the region was under way.ix
Transport is provided to take the women safely from their villages to the factories and return them home at the end of the working day, a key concern for the women themselves and their families, and a separate canteen facility has been created for them to eat breakfast and lunch. A group of girls from Madhya Pradesh were also given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to China, where they spent 90 days learning how to make shoes. They returned to the Dewas factory armed with this newly-acquired knowledge and have since used it to support their colleagues and help new workers hired as part of Tata’s equality drive.

Waste not, want not for Turkish group

Sepici Grubu has always been at the forefront of the Turkish leather industry when it comes to innovation and moving with the times. Having opened the country’s first effluent treatment plant in 1989, it continued its role as a pioneer in environmental management in 2009 with the opening of an on-site facility to turn sludge from its wastewater treatment plant into organic fertiliser.x All organic waste from waste treatment and manufacturing operations is recycled at the facility using a two-month process that turns it into compost. Trials have taken place with the Aegean University Faculty of Agriculture to assess the fertiliser as a nutrient source or conditioning agent.
The project gives the Izmir-based company the capacity to recycle 15 tonnes of sludge per day, an ideal proposition given that it is by far Sepici Grubu’s biggest waste product. It also means eliminating a significant outlay on waste disposal, which can cost up to €20 per tonne when transport is included. This was not what motivated the tannery to undertake this project, however. Sepici Grubu believed that regulations on waste in the Turkish leather industry were likely to become even stricter and so took steps to plan for the future. It predicted at the time of the facility’s opening that within ten years tanneries would no longer be permitted to put fleshings into landfill. The opening of the facility was the first stage in planning for this eventuality.
Clearly, CSR is a concept well understood within the leather industry.

i.    http://www.sescgo.com.br/pt-br/site.php?secao=assistencia&pub=3015
ii.    World Leather magazine April/May 2014 (http://leatherbiz.com/WLEzine.aspx)
iii.    https://www.dkms.de/en
iv.    World Leather magazine June/July 2015 (http://leatherbiz.com/WLEzine.aspx)
v.    http://www.aplf.com/en-us/leather-fashion-news-and-blog/news/21771/africa-pittards-funds-new-classroom-for-ethiopian-school
vi.    http://cvc.org.br/quem-somos/
vii.    http://www.unt.se/uppland/heby/nu-har-tarnsjo-garveri-hm-som-kund-3073430.aspx
viii.    http://www.aircraftinteriorsinternational.com/news.php?NewsID=23410
ix.    http://www.tata.com/article/inside/Where-the-shoe-fits
x.    http://leatherbiz.com/fullitem.aspx?id=105353
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