Footwear consumption in the US alone is expected to double over the next 20 years, and again in the following two decades. The numbers are most likely to be even higher in areas where populations continue to boom. Asia, as a centre of footwear production as well as rapid population growth, is the natural focus for sustainability efforts in this sector, and while efforts have been made, few approaches have been widely adopted. It takes know-how, connections and the right framework to effectively promote sustainability reform.

A tour, part of the SGS Global Softlines Seminar Roadshow, provided a platform for industry veterans to share their expertise with manufacturers, retailers, international brands, suppliers and sourcing companies. The stated goal was to positively impact the leather and footwear sector in this region by furnishing valuable information for responsible practices and reasonable solutions to current challenges. Participants on both sides of the microphone were enthusiastic about this chance to exchange ideas, and work towards new ways to address issues facing the footwear and leather market.

The tour kicked off with two dates in India, first in Chennai and then in Agra, moved on to Indonesia, stopped in Vietnam’s largest city and concluded in Guangzhou, China. Judging from the overwhelmingly positive response and high attendance numbers, similar events will no doubt be planned for the future.

Reflecting the global dimensions of the industry itself, the seminar topics took a global view as well, emphasising the overarching goal of sustainability throughout the production process and supply chain. Beginning with the basics, the seminars provided information on the fundamentals of footwear and leather production, from the processing of raw hides to finishing, as well as an opportunity to explore the details of the manufacturing process.

Participants learned about types of finishes and varieties of leather typical of domestic and international markets. This in-depth look at how raw hide is transformed into shoe leather is an important precursor to discussions of sustainability. Although the hide itself is not a finite resource, its sustainability profile is affected by the tanning and processing chemicals used to treat it. With one eye always on sustainable solutions, the seminar speakers could draw on their know-how to point out the positive effects of using different tannages such as vegetable extracts, the implications of partial or full use of plant extract fatliquors and natural dyestuffs.

he seminar format allowed participants to deepen their understanding of footwear production and to recognise challenges along the supply chain, from issues surrounding raw materials, component manufacturing and assembly, packaging and logistics to retail and recycling. At every step, human health and the health of the planet can best be protected through vigilance, testing and innovation.

Quality first and foremost

Ensuring the quality of the leather and the resulting footwear products is, of course, among manufacturers’ major concerns, and the seminar series also covered this issue. The sessions showed how quality management is linked to decisions such as selecting the right tanners, leather grading and implementing measures to improve the cost efficiency of leather.

A significant issue related to quality management is mould, which can lead to unsightly changes and foul odours in the finished product. This is an extremely salient topic to manufacturers located in Asia, where high temperatures and humidity can foster mould growth. And beyond concerns about product appearance caused by mould, its presence may represent a health risk under certain circumstances. The roadshow event was the perfect forum to educate those active in the leather and footwear industry about the dangers of mould and how to prevent it. Through its mould prevention initiative, SGS is experienced in dealing with this issue through mould prevention awareness training and on-site mould prevention assessments.

Inextricably linked to quality concerns is chemical management. In today’s climate of environmental awareness coupled with an increased understanding of how human health can be affected by the chemicals that surround them, manufacturers have a special responsibility to consumers to keep their processes and products as free of toxic substances as possible. To this end, seminar speakers covered the key elements of chemical management and addressed questions concerning methods to prevent restricted substances from contaminating leather products and footwear.

"Judging from the overwhelmingly positive response and high attendance numbers, similar events will no doubt be planned for the future."

Again, keeping the whole supply chain in mind, those in attendance at the event were encouraged to identify potential chemical risks in footwear and leather production processes. For leather, examples included preventing chromium VI, and for footwear in general, identifying types of adhesives to bind the sole to the upper, for example, or the presence of phthalates in plastic accessories on children’s footwear.

As governments become more active in protecting their populations from toxins, the list of restricted substances grows, in turn requiring manufacturers to keep abreast of new developments. The roadshow seminars featured a discussion of the most critical restricted substances and the regulations associated with them, and addressed how such substances might be managed and reduced along the supply chain.

Get the message out

As a world-wide leader in promoting compliance, SGS is in a position to supply a range of essential information regarding chemical testing and restricted substances, and roadshow attendees were appreciative of the chance to get first-hand advice on these practical concerns. In fact, one of the major strengths participants cited was the interactive nature of the seminars and the lively discussions mediated by knowledgeable professionals on practical as well as theoretical issues.

One of these practical considerations is, not surprisingly, cost. Meeting myriad requirements, governing international markets and providing proof of compliance is a financial as well as logistical challenge. Learning how to distribute the costs of testing throughout the supply chain while ultimately keeping restricted substances out of consumer products is a worthy goal, and one that event participants are now better equipped to reach.

The principal speakers at the events were Paul Bridge, SGS global business development manager for leather and footwear, and Dr Andrew Hudson, SGS global technical head for leather and footwear. With more than 50 years’ combined experience in the industry, Bridge and Hudson were able to offer valuable perspectives on responsible production practices to their audiences.

While the primary organiser of the seminar series was SGS and its regional affiliates, local and national associations also offered their support. This cooperation together with the strong attendance of regional and international stakeholders in the leather and footwear industry speaks to the importance of this market throughout Asia and underlines the growing interest in topics of sustainability, production chain accountability, quality and chemical management.

Vietnam, with a population of 93 million, is the least populous of the countries that hosted the seminar, with India and China representing key emerging economies, recognised worldwide for their future potential as promising markets and powerhouse manufacturers. Against this backdrop, the SGS Global Softlines Seminar Roadshow with its emphasis on knowledge sharing and collaborative solutions represents an investment in a future characterised by responsible, sustainable economic growth, a thriving environment and healthy, satisfied consumers. The popularity of the tour sends an encouraging sign and paves the way for more of its kind to come.