No topic has gripped the industry as tightly as sustainability in recent years, and it has put the perception of leather and its producers in the balance. With so much misinformation around leather production and its impact, with the worst examples of practice often put forward as industry norms in the media, the industry has had to work hard to change the way it operates and to put the truth in front of consumers.

Given the scale of the task, progress has been relatively swift.

“In many ways, the leather industry has responded well – we are seeing that the industry now recognises the urgency to demonstrate more sustainable practices, not least to redress the volume of misinformation and greenwash that is being constantly fed to consumers,” says Deborah Taylor, managing director of the Sustainably Leather Foundation (SLF). “The recognition that, as an industry, we can’t answer the criticism if we aren’t measuring and demonstrating improvement is now understood.

“Most progress has been made in process efficiency and resource minimisation,” she adds. “The least progress has been made in value chain partnership to create robust traceability. One of the biggest areas of focus for SLF is working throughout the whole value chain in a way that protects commercial sensitivities while still allowing effective means of traceability.”

Collaboration is the key

To build on the many strides forward that have already been made, the industry must now think about how different stakeholders can work together to improve the perception of the industry as a whole. Every individual effort to implement greener and more socially responsible practices is laudable, but collaboration will be a powerful tool in the future.

“Collaboration is essential because that’s where strength of purpose really accelerates progress and working together is critical right now to mitigate the biggest threat to our industry – lack of traceability,” says Taylor. “With the incoming due diligence legislation likely to have a real impact by 2024, unless we find solutions now, brands and OEMs will move to materials that have less risk.”

In the European Union (EU), the Directive on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence will have a major impact, as it will require mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence. While this will be the responsibility of individual companies, it will be a major issue for the industry as a whole.

To drive forward an industry-wide response to the challenges of sustainability, SLF has created a number of Collaboration Hubs – formal platforms where industry concerns and priorities can be discussed, problem-solving and road maps can be accelerated, and tangible results can be achieved. These hubs focus on numerous key areas: biodegradability, carbon footprint, chemistry, consumer communication, deforestation and biodiversity, facility governance, social responsibility, traceability and transparency.

“The idea of the collaboration hubs was to create a platform where ideas and discussion could take place in a pre-competitive environment for the better good of the whole industry,” Taylor explains. “The intention was to create a space for the sharing of ideas, concerns and establish the priority actions that industry would like to see addressed.”

Another key development is the SLF’s Transparency Dashboard, which it sees as the most important part of its suite of tools. It provides a single resource that visualises an organisation’s progress on environmental performance, as well as social and governance responsibility. The dashboard incorporates all the existing certification that a company may have through its equivalency service, before then allowing a company to fill the gaps in their responsibility through SLF’s own audit standard or through other third-party audit programmes.

“The Transparency Dashboard is perfect for supporting transformative change across deforestation and other sustainability risks,” says Taylor. “It doesn’t just work for leather manufacturers, as we already have a dashboard for the product manufacturers and are working on the chemical company dashboard right now. The Machinery Dashboard development is just commencing and then we move on to the meatpackers and farmers.”

“Each of these sectors will be able to connect with their suppliers and customers through the dashboard to create robust supply chain mapping that adds sustainability performance automatically,” she adds.

“The best part is that there is no need for each individual company to share their information directly with each other – that sensitive information is protected within our Transparency Dashboard and together creates the demonstration of good practice.”

“Most progress has been made in process efficiency and resource minimisation. The least progress has been made in value chain partnership to create robust traceability.”

Deborah Taylor

Cutting back on chemicals

Another organisation that is looking closely at collaborative practices is the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) initiative. A multi-stakeholder organisation with more than 170 contributors from across the industry, including brands, suppliers, chemical suppliers and solution providers, it has implemented the Roadmap to Zero Programme to help the fashion industry to eliminate harmful chemicals from its global supply chain by building a foundation for more sustainable manufacturing to protect workers, consumers and ecosystems.

Started ten years ago, when Greenpeace launched the Detox campaign, ZDHC recognised that – even if there is a clear list of restricted chemicals – there was no global programme to ensure these chemicals are not being used and are not polluting rivers.

“For sure, the first field to be tackled in a massive way was the textile industry and then we realised that wastewater guidance applied to leather, so applied it to that two years ago,” says ZDHC’s Southern Europe regional director, Elisa Gavazza. “The level of engagement in textiles is different compared to leather, which was started later, so we are pushing a change of mindset. We don’t address compliance at the level of the final product but we push management of chemicals at the very beginning. Though it is not mandatory, there are benefits in terms of worker safety and product quality.

“We need to develop the programme with support from all stakeholders in the supply chain – brands, tanneries, leather producers must implement sustainable chemical management, but also chemical suppliers who must create chemicals without harmful substances,” she adds. “The industry must have options to make substitutions.”

For ZDHC, collaboration is essential to change the industry’s prevailing mindset in regard to chemical management.

“People in sustainability teams in the leather industry or at brands are very committed to what they do, and they are working to drive change in collaboration,” Gavazza observes. “In the real world, companies are competitors, but for a few hours we can put that aside and look at processes together. After all, they are using the same suppliers.

“At the beginning, when a brand became a contributor to ZDHC, it would see that only a small percentage of the industry was engaged, but now they see more of the supply chain involved, and they see the benefits from common action across the industry. ZDHC was a brand organisation but now we are a multi-stakeholder organisation with brands, suppliers and chemical formulators all engaged in the programme.”

Already, ZDHC is seeing tangible benefits, as some competing brands are taking action together on the same supply chain, notably some of the luxury brands in Italy. ZDHC is itself trying to collaborate with other organisations to ensure that it is focused on its core competences and that each association respects the core goals of the others. For instance, the approach of the Leather Working Group to chemical management is now aligned with ZDHC’s approach.

“Collaboration is essential so that all strands of sustainability come together,” Gavazza remarks. “We realise that chemical management does not stand alone as a topic. It has a huge impact on the biodiversity piece of sustainability, but we are also doing a study now on chemicals management and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

“More and more we should try to simplify the approach to sustainability and chemicals management by helping suppliers understand where to start, removing some of the confusion as there are so many aspects to sustainability,” she adds.

A work in progress

The signs are positive, so far, but there is much more to do if collaboration is going to deliver all that it promises.

“Interestingly, the response to the collaboration hubs was not as expected,” Taylor remarks. “While many industry stakeholders signed up, not many actually joined the first round of calls and it didn’t garner the input that was hoped for. In fact, the first round of hubs left more questions than answers.

“There were also a large number of stakeholders who joined the calls to learn and listen, rather than add input,” she adds.

“For this reason, we have focused more this year on trying to address how we can support improvement in some of the key issues rather than more talking and less doing.”

For SLF, the next step is to drive further adoption and engagement from industry including the brands, OEMs and retailers. For the industry as a whole, the next step is to engage with the growing number of forums in which they can discuss how to work together to improve best practices, respect the environment and have a positive impact on society. Whatever your role in the supply chain, the road ahead must be walked together.