The 2014 SGS roadshows were extremely well attended by a broad cross-section of the supply chain with representatives from tanneries, shoe-component manufacturers, wholesalers, national authorities, retailers and international brands. Among the attendees were designers, merchandisers, buyers and technologists, all of whom shared extremely interesting and valuable discussion points at each seminar.

Each half-day event followed a similar agenda with subjects ranging from an introduction to leather and a basic footwear manufacturing module to typical customer complaints, an in-depth summary of the main restricted substances and an introduction to the next generation of product conformance control.

Leather and footwear training

The training modules on leather and footwear covered a variety of aspects with a focus on the basics of the respective manufacturing processes and classifications of different types of footwear constructions and leather types. Graphics and descriptions of grain types, pigment usage and finish application, and how these relate to their classification as well as an aesthetic and performance characteristic, were well received, and many comments followed as to how this promoted an understanding of appropriate expectations for each leather type.

Various animal-skin types and differing leather characteristics within a hide were also explained, along with the directional properties of leather. Comparing these characteristics with warp and weft within fabrics was found to be a useful tool in transferring knowledge to many participants, especially those with a textile-technology background. This concept was further developed in the footwear presentation where the importance of correct cutting orientation for shoe upper components was demonstrated; for example, in the case of vamps being cut ‘tight to toe’. Indeed, each presentation included aspects relating to other topics with the aim of drawing together different elements that must be considered when designing, manufacturing and controlling the quality of consumer products.

A session on customer complaints followed, showing a range of examples of leather products that had been returned due to real or perceived performance issues. The presenters explained potential causes of these issues with practical examples of how problems can be avoided within the supply chain. Examples included finish cracking, colour transfer, pipiness, looseness, colour fading and adhesion issues with a focus on sharing experiences, and the importance of considering the composite product – not just leather in isolation.

The leather presentation was particularly successful, and delegate feedback showed that many terms are used within the supply chain often without understanding their exact definitions. Attendees brought leather products along with real-life issues to each session and when impromptu workshops ensued.

Restricted substances

A presentation on restricted substances covered more than 20 of the main products that are most commonly found in leather and footwear products. Data was given that demonstrated that the number of recall cases (as given by RAPEX) has steadily decreased over the past five years despite an increase in regulatory testing. While Germany continues to be the most active with respect to recalls (more likely due to the level of testing rather than any specific issues related to products in that country), there have been increases in Spain and France over the past three years.

Cross-referencing these recalls with the country of origin of the products showed that China accounted for more than 90% over the past five years. China and India have seen increases in recalls since 2010. However, breaking down these recalls into specific restricted substances, it was shown that the majority of issues have actually been reduced. This can be explained through the general trend of a substance becoming restricted, the industry then assessing the propensity within its supply chain, followed by a concerted effort to reduce the issue at source, which ultimately leads to fewer incidences of failure.

In most cases, restricted substances can be eliminated at the source by ensuring that they do not enter the supply chain. One exception to this is where a restricted substance is created either during product manufacturing or storage/transport. In the case of chrome VI, which can be created from the tanning agent chrome III during the supply chain, there has been a significant increase in product recalls since 2010 with no sign of this diminishing. In fact, chrome VI accounts for approximately 75% of the restricted substance recalls in 2014 and is a significant contributor to the general increase in recall cases overall.

Information on each of the major restricted substances was given including the origin and an explanation of how they commonly enter the supply chain. Feedback from the attendees proved how important it is to understand this so that focused attention can be given to eliminating them from consumer products. Comparisons were made of national and international limits to allow the participants to benchmark themselves appropriately.

Product conformance

The roadshow sessions all finished off with an overview of the complexity of ensuring leather product conformance, and the need to reduce duplication of cost and effort within the supply chain. Strategies were discussed for sharing appropriate responsibility and cost at each stage of the supply chain. This approach was shown to reduce cost while extending the level of conformance and due diligence, and allowing products to have fewer delays and more ‘shelf time’. The delegates’ response confirmed the need for this approach, and a series of follow-up meetings were organised after these sessions.

The discussion sessions demonstrated the high interest in further understanding leather and footwear manufacturing and technology, and the need within the supply chain for regulatory updates and topics relating to the latest issues. Judging from the subject that gave rise to the most number of questions, the session on restricted substances appeared to have been of particular benefit to the delegates. This highlighted the need for further knowledge dissemination throughout the supply chain.

Continued need for training

The seven roadshows demonstrated the need for service and training providers to share knowledge and understanding within the supply chain. In many cases, leather is a particular niche sector within the retail supply chain and responsibility for conformance is overseen by fabric technologists. Ensuring that as much information as possible is made available at each step along the supply chain is to the benefit of all involved, and can help eliminate misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations.

On-site follow-up seminars at individual companies have already been provided due to demand from a number of delegates.