The leather industry has considerable potential for development using Bangladesh’s large supply of low-cost labour and high-quality raw materials. But instead of development, the Bangladeshi leather sector has been struggling due to environmental compliance issues and continually declining exports. The Leather Working Group (LWG) refused to run audit inspection until the adoption of cleaner technology in all running tanneries and full treatment of tannery effluents, along with proper solid waste and chrome management, had taken place.

It became a major concern of the tanning industry in attracting foreign buyers from the EU, Japan and US for the leather and leather products markets. The lack of a fully functional central effluent treatment plant (CETP), and chrome and solid waste management at the Savar tannery cluster has proved to be a huge hindrance to Bangladesh’s leather and leather products exporters. The situation has meant Bangladeshi exporters have had no choice but to sell their crust – finished leather and leather products are at rates 40% lower than the global price, and only due to non-LWG compliance certification.

The Savar relocation was made in 2017 following a verdict by the country’s highest court, which had been told that the new tannery site was ready to take the waste load of the tanneries. This was simply misleading information provided to the court by the public body to ‘show its efficiency’ to the country’s highest authority. After that, within 48 hours the Hazaribagh tanneries had been shut down by disconnecting all the utility facilities at the whole tannery cluster.

Without preparing the CETP and other environmental facilities correctly, forcefully relocating those tanneries is now considered a great mistake by the Industry Ministry. This mistake is already costing the economy more than $500 million in exports, as well as job losses for labour and engineers. On top of this is the destruction of valueless rawhide and skins in every Qurbani season, which also has immeasurable costs. The Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) was the writ applicator for closing the tannery in Hazaribagh. Here, it failed to promote environmental justice without observing the actual conditions in the Savar tannery cluster. Today, the Bangladesh Small & Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC) says the CETP is not yet completed, with the central chrome recovery plant and solid waste dumping yard still in the files.

Always a danger

To prevent the dangerous pollution that occurred at the Hazaribagh site and bring the industry into better compliance with customer environmental requirements, the new location at Savar – 10km away from Hazaribagh and includes a CETP constructed at the cost of $73m (financed by the Bangladesh Government) – is able to treat 30,000m3 of liquid effluents a day already, and has been working for three years with poor treatment technology from China. Additional facilities like the central chrome recovery unit, solid waste dumping yard and sludge treatment facilities are not yet constructed – but why, nobody knows.

The BSCIC, which is responsible for the tannery cluster authority, cannot distinguish the differences between leather engineering and civil engineering, so they appointed one civil engineer as adviser for the project. This civil engineer is actually able to doing nothing for cleaner technology adoption in the tanneries within the cluster and seems to have no idea what should be done for a new, underconstructed tannery cluster. Due to his inability, some planned capabilities are not yet installed, and the CETP is not yet running at full swing, resulting in sludge being dumped in an open yard, and partially treated waste water is regularly discharged into the neighbouring Dhaleshwari River, causing severe pollution where TDS is the one of the major problems.

Cleaner technology exists as a proven, efficient method of minimising pollution caused by leather processing activities. It can reduce the negative environmental impacts through a switchover from hair burn liming to ‘hair save’ unhairing and liming, chrome management and safe disposal of tannery solid wastes. This technology also reduces the quantity of dischargeable effluent and reduces the pollutants in the effluent, which in turn reduces the treatment cost.

Rawhide prices plummet again like 2019

Despite the government fixing rawhide prices the Eid, a plummet in the price could not be prevented.

This rock-bottom price of hide and skins was noted during a 1 August 2020 afternoon visit to the Hazaribagh old tannery area and the Posta country’s biggest rawhide centre. The skins of the sacrificial animals everywhere are being sold well below the fixed prices set by the Ministry of Commerce, even though the prices had been reduced by 20–30% lower than in 2019.

Stockists and tannery owners have said there will be 30% fewer hides coming in compared with 2019 and so there is a high demand. But they are using old excuses for the poor prices despite the high demand. The commerce ministry met with tannery industry owners recently and determined the price of hides of the Eid sacrificial animals. In the afternoon at Old Dhaka’s Raw Hide market, Posta, lines of pickup vans and trucks had arrived at the Qurbani (sacrificial) animal rawhide warehouses. The stockists were bargaining and buying the skins. Workers were unloading the hides, taking these inside and treating the skins with salt for preservation.

The importance of exports

To boost leather exports to the aforementioned US, Japan, UK and EU, the industry must obtain certification from LWG demonstrating compliance with those markets’ labour and environmental performance. Standards compliance must be seen; therefore, it should be an integral part of Bangladesh’s national policy for the leather industry. To achieve this compliance, the adoption of cleaner technology in leather production is very important. It can also reduce the pollution load by potentially 60% and set the TDS within the limit. The harmonious relations between workers and owners will also be required to recognise their common interest in obtaining LWG certification.

LWG is a multi-stakeholder initiative involving brands, suppliers, manufacturers, NGOs and end users. LWG uses an audit protocol that assesses the environmental compliance and performance capabilities of tanneries, and promotes sustainable environmental business practices within the world leather industries. LWG is currently considered as one of the most influential and powerful tannery environmental management system-monitoring organisations in the world. It worked to develop an environmental stewardship protocol specifically for the leather manufacturing industries. There is no doubt that the LWG’s audit protocol has significantly contributed to raising environmental standards, primarily in developing countries, where most of the actual auditing has been done. Gold, silver and even bronze ratings improve the overall image of the company and apparently create better marketing potential.

“To boost leather exports to the aforementioned US, Japan, UK and EU, the industry must obtain certification from LWG demonstrating compliance with those markets’ labour and environmental performance.”

So far, only 600 tanneries are now under LWG, but 7,400 tanneries are still remaining for such certification. Surprisingly, LWG (as per its website) appoint only 11 auditors from ten countries, with two from India, which has 2,000 tanneries, and none from China, where 2,500 tanneries operate. Questions remain regarding the fresh inspection and reinspection of certified tanneries, and how 11 auditors can fulfil the needs of audit service for all tanneries? To reduce the pressure of LWG inspection and reinspection, it would be justified for the validity of LWG gold-certified tanneries to be set to five years, and three years for silver and two years for bronze-certified tanneries. Currently, LWG’s can’t monitor the environmental performance of the world leather industry. Due to Covid-19 and the worldwide lockdown, the LWG audit programme was fully halted and all certified tannery’s audit expiry dates were delayed for one year. From July 2020, some LWG audits have started again but more new auditors from other countries should be appointed.