Managing “Brand Leather”

Solid and liquid wastes are a problem in Pakistan
Solid and liquid wastes are a problem in Pakistan

If you read the discussions group for LeatherNaturally! on LinkedIn you will be aware that the subject of environmental and sustainable leather production of leather in the developing world has been raised by Anthony Wright, of Barrhead Kid in Scotland, and Ian Michel of Amandian Leather in Northampton.

Many recent reports and YouTube videos have been produced to show how society and the planet is being damaged by lack of environmental treatment of wastes and poor or dangerous working conditions.  There is no doubt that mainstream high quality leather production is being damaged by the wide publicity being given to these aspects of leather production which run totally against the image of leather as a high quality, sustainable, planet friendly material.  Recent pictures in a double page spread in the Guardian Newspaper of Hazaribagh are typical.

The problem is that it is very easy when defending leather to attack these groups in a way that offers no solution. Anthony Wright commented as follows: “Maybe ‘the industry’ should get down from its ill-informed high horse and see what’s really going on these tanneries and understand the issues faced by decent, honest tanners trying to survive making real leather. Hazaribagh is a great example of a tanning microcosm trying to exist in a dysfunctional political environment. Kano in Nigeria is another one. The question ‘can low tech tanners in poor countries really produce a quality product’ reveals a complete lack of understanding of both tanning and the industry in general. Oh, and by the way, the answer is yes they certainly can, and in a much more environmentally friendly way.”

Ian Michel jumped in quickly in support: “I agree very much with Anthony. I will add that having visited Hazaribagh on a few occasions, I have never seen any young children working in the tanneries and I do not think they use any more toxic chemicals than the rest of the world in both leather and other industries. I have, however seen many 4 and 5 year olds running in between the chaotic traffic begging for money or a crust. There are no state benefits in Bangladesh and the fortunate ones who have a job do not really need the rest of the world trying to take it away from them. Starvation is a big problem.

The tanners do produce good leather and they should be allowed to continue. Things may be better when and if they ever move the tanneries to their new area where they will have better effluent treatment, but in the meantime we should support them.”

There are some important points here. I’ve never been to Bangladesh but have travelled to many of the places that get regularly mentioned. While the processing is generally speaking using the same chemicals as the rest of our industry the primary issues are the management of waste and the health and safety of the workers. It is the former where I struggle with what Ian and Anthony are saying with regard to these issues.

Take Pakistan as an example. They have been talking about a central effluent plant for tanneries for decades. Many of the tanners and glove/garment makers are very wealthy. The local community is rich enough to have shocked the country and built its own airport, with the longest runway in the country. Yet with only 1% of Pakistanis bothering to pay tax the money that should be paying for effluent treatment is parked in banks in Dubai and Zurich. There is a chrome treatment plant, but it was disconnected when I was last there. Tannery effluent is being released into the paddy fields and children are getting sick. The leather from good tanneries in Pakistan with full treatment, such as those in Karachi, is tainted by what goes on in Sialkot.

Think also of Ethiopia, where the leather industry is a lamplighter for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.  Back in 1964 a tannery was built in the town of Modjo, some 75 miles south of Addis and I have visited it many times since the mid 80s. Until recently no one bothered with effluent treatment and the waste went directly to the river. At the same time as new tanneries were built generally no effluent plants were established. In the general region only Pittards Ethiopian Share Tannery was really well set up with a comprehensive waste system. Things are perhaps improving now but when I was last there two years ago the Modjo plant was a long way off and the tanneries in the town were putting raw waste into the river. Across the country in Morocco you will find well established tanneries still waiting for relocation to a future area with a central treatment. Meanwhile quite a few remain with zero treatment. And in the souks like Fez why are some of these little tanners using chrome. They have zero competence and structure to manage chromium and should stay well clear.

In China we saw large tanneries with excellent waste treatment plants but not using them in order to save the running costs. Progress really started to made in China around 2005 when China decided to enforce and improve their regulations. This cheating has been eliminated, tanneries have been grouped into new centres with central treatment plants while smaller standalone plants have been shut. Problems in India are all about enforcement with Tamil Nadu being really strict while some other parts of India appear to lack the political will to enforce the rules, or are just corrupt.

The question is how we  address these problem? It is not easy. But where we are playing with rich owners or management deliberately avoiding their responsibilities then I do not have any sympathy; anywhere in the world. When you are working with small impoverished producers we do need to find away to help them. Effluent plants do not need to be outlandishly expensive and given a fair amount of land simple approaches like reed beds offer low cost solutions. Why on earth do authorities permit new downtown tanneries, as in Addis, where they just is not enough space to do affordable effluent treatment?

As I have worked around the world with USAid, UNIDO and other organisations over the years I have tried to focus on this aspect. Nearly all the countries you work in have fast growing populations and polluted rivers and water table quickly impacts on the health of the community in a way that never happened 50 years ago. So trying to simplify, clarify and help with environmental matters has to be a central element.

Equally with workwear. We have tended to travel the world and accepted that it was OK to find workers in bare feet on machines like fleshing machines. These days we need to start insisting on proper gloves, footwear and other protective clothing; which does often mean finding ways of helping the poor manufacturers to fund these. In Ethiopia Pittards have long made it known that they will help other tanners with imports of affordable product which just shows that there are ways to do it.

A final thought

One aspect of all this is to be clear that we are not just setting up barriers to trade for certain tanners and countries. Demands for expensive test certificates that require large numbers of samples to be sent to Europe, or paying fees for membership and audit in the LWG are typical developments intended to make more of the world’s leather comply with top standards but have the side-effect of excluding financially weak developing world tanners.    I agree, too, that folks like me from LeatherNaturally! attacking them as part of a process of protecting the “brand leather”  is unhelpful. Yet these are issues that we have to help resolve, not just for the sake of tanners involved, nor for the sake of image and future of leather as a material but also for the planet.

Mike Redwood

14th December, 2012