Leather International: Can you explain ICEC’s new certification services regarding traceability of raw materials, origin of production and social accountability, and what market conditions made these services necessary for implementation?

Sabrina Frontini: The market is interested in the degree of control that the tanneries have over their supply chains, including the knowledge of the countries of origin of the raw materials – leathers – and the slaughtering and breeding farms from which they originated.

To this end, ICEC prepared a certification scheme that can be developed according to the following requirements: TS SC 410 for products systems in tanneries and TS PC 412 for single products in tanneries.

The main aim is to provide an indicator – rating – and a short judgement – sufficient, good, very good, excellent – that comments upon the level of monitoring by the organisation over the purchased in terms of the geographical traceability of the upstream phases of the raw materials – slaughterhouses, breeding farm. The final rating is calculated through a mapping of 12 months’ orders of raw materials. The technical specifications belong to ICEC, and will only be diffused in a controlled way and on demand.

Because of the interest of the tanneries in promoting the ‘Italian – or national – production’ of their leathers, the European Standard UNI EN 16484, ‘Leather: requirements for the determination of the origin of leather production’, was published. ICEC goes on to issue product certification according to this standard, requiring integration between origin denomination of finished leather and a system that guarantees the quality management (ISO 9001, for example).

To define a leather as ‘Italian’ (leather produced in Italy) in compliance with international non-preferential rules of origin, at least the last substantial economically justified process has to be carried out in Italy. For finished leathers, the origin must be the country in which the retanning, fatliquoring or dyeing take place. If the finishing takes place in a different country, then it shall be indicated separately – ‘Italian leather, finished in France’, for example.

The place of origin of the raw material is unimportant. The tanneries that carry out the whole cycle in Italy – from rawhide to finished leather – can use the wording ‘leather from Italy, full cycle’.

A socially responsible company not only ensures compliance with the mandatory legislation but also goes beyond, investing more and more in human resources, environmental respect and in its relationship with the stakeholders, thus generating trust.

The leather sector is increasingly interested in social accountability, demanding that it be respected throughout the supply chain. UNIC’s Code of Conduct and Social Accountability is a basic instrument to spread the principles regulating business activity. In this document, the principles of conduct and social accountability are officially defined.

The documents include the principles of the SA8000 standard, of the main international agreements – ILO – about workers’ rights – above all regarding juvenile labour – and the main requirements about social accountability, the environment and professionalism.

Implementing the code means also involving any suppliers and subcontractors in the supply chain, within the limits of their jurisdiction. ICEC performs the audits to certify conformity to the code.

What has been the response and progress since ICEC joined the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) Programme?

It is excited and motivated to participate in a project that will bring improvements to the leather sector. In particular, it is following activities related to audit protocol. ICEC is only at the beginning of its involvement in this project and will be keeping an eye on its development.

Can you detail the response you received and the enthusiasm you sensed from the ICT Council Meeting in Hong Kong ahead of APLF this year?

The presentation has been accepted with high interest by participants. ICEC’s activities have given particular attention to more innovative and modern schemes designed for the specific demands of the leather sector. It sees the possibility of initiating collaborations with certification bodies of the ICT’s main member countries.

Can ICEC look to China as a model for progress, considering its commitment to cleaning up its leather production and waste management, especially in the northern regions, where there have been many tannery closures in response to regulation infractions?

No, ICEC is not really looking at China as a model in this regard. In Europe, and especially in Italy, the leather industry has very strict legislative regulations in the field of environmental protection, health and safety at work, and social responsibility that are well applied and subject to severe controls and sanctions. In fact, voluntary certifications – for example, those adopted by ICEC, such as ISO 14001, EMAS, and OHSAS18001 – start from the legislative compliance, and they grow by monitoring the continuous improvements of companies.

"The leather sector is increasingly interested in social accountability, demanding that it be respected throughout the supply chain." 

In addition to this constant evolution of the legislative requirements, the increasingly high demands of the clients of the tanneries, together with the adherence to international working groups such as CLEAR and ZDHC, allow the entire Italian industry to be avant-garde. For decades, ICEC has been dealing with these issues; in particular, through certifications, recognised and accredited, it works in a preventative way. If new ideas are born at the international level, ICEC will be glad to compare them with current regulations, but it is certainly not unprepared on these topics.

What is the current state of leather in Italy, taking into consideration the hide market, consumer demands and appetites, and current geopolitical events?

The overall situation of the leather market in Italy is still uncertain and ‘spotty’, much the same as it was last year. There is no clear and specific trend prevailing at the moment. Demand from clients is fragmented, irregular and somewhat frantic. Tanners need to be ready to supply small volumes rapidly, and be fully compliant with a wide series of non-commercial requests including chemicals, the environment and social issues. It is not always easy.

Another problem tanners are facing is raw-material prices. There has been some increases – and many attempts at increases – that have no business justification if one considers the dynamics of the whole leather chain at the moment. This is an additional concern for market operators at a time when stability is needed to foster a concrete recovery for the business. The global situation – from economic and political points of view – is certainly not helpful. People are worried about the tensions arising in many regions, and anxiety does not really sit well with consumption and prosperity.

Which segments of the Italian leather industry are particularly buoyant, and which are facing greater challenges?

The automotive segment is the best performer in this sector. Italian leather is increasingly appreciated by the car industry, and is gaining global market share. Footwear destinations still record ups and downs, and this has become a long-standing situation.

The whole tanning industry, not just Italy’s, should reflect deeply on the use of leather in shoemaking and react somehow, as future perspectives seem to be not so bright.

Sales to producers of leather goods (bags and so on) are improving after the slowdown of the recent seasons, while leather garments, being niche at this point, seem to be stable. There has been some recovery from the furniture industry, but the market has changed greatly compared with a decade ago.

Will leather certification need to be updated as the UK begins to implement the terms on which it leaves the EU?

This is something that still needs to be defined and it is difficult to predict what will happen. The standards used for certification could remain unchanged, or they could be subject to variations in terms of requirements, which would be tailored to the UK’s exit. We will see what will happen in the appropriate working commissions that are responsible for regulatory updates.

How will certification have to evolve as lab-grown leather and synthetics become cleaner, cheaper and more attractive to consumers, especially with the current ‘athleisure’ trend?

The real skin comes from real animals, and they are treated with tannery processes that bring out its merit and beauty. We are talking about a unique material that gives emotions to the consumer, and has its own history and value. This has nothing to do with material with synthetic or vegetal origins that try to imitate leathers.

ICEC’s certifications want to deal with ‘real leathers’. It is committed to enhancing the sustainability of the tanning industry, the performance of leather, and the excellence of a sector that must not fear counterfeit products.

Are there any points from the 2016 UNIC sustainability report you would particularly like to highlight in terms of progress and innovation?

The tannery occupies a natural position in the circular economy. There is a need to deepen specific aspects connected to the managing and recovering of waste, identifying innovations and spreading best practices. Furthermore, there is a will to modify a communicative approach of the Sustainability Report, making it more immediately comprehensible to technicians as well as consumers, addressing attacks on the leather sector – which are often based on false prejudice or poor knowledge – with a transparent and effective approach to sustainability.