Again under fire

4 October 2010

What have we done to the world to get into the crossfire with a number of eco-groups? How strong is the ‘ecological’ sales argument to convince the general public to buy ‘green’ rather than greenish. Is price more important than ecology or vice versa? Have any of our representative international associations such as ICT, Cotance or the various national associations ever looked into this? This would be important to know in the light of the proliferation of eco-groups or animal rights groups that actively try to take control of the way the leather industry runs its business. A press release dated March 23 stated the following (see April page 8 for the full story): ‘To address growing demand for often illegal cattle and leathergoods that are putting pressure on tropical forests in Asia and the Amazon, The Forest Trust (TFT) and the Macintosh Retail Group announced the launch of a new initiative today that will use production of ‘green’ shoes, bedding, flooring and textiles to fight slash-and-burn cattle ranching and production of toxic glues that are decimating rain forests and damaging the environment.

‘We are committed to using the systems originally developed by TFT to monitor wood supply chains to become the only major retailer in Europe to offer independently-verified forest responsible shoes, clothing and home products’, said Eric Coorens, chief operating officer of the Macintosh Retail Group, which serves 200 million consumers a year at 1,249 stores in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, United Kingdom and France.
TFT has developed a sophisticated tracking system that allows its member companies to verify that the tropical wood products they purchase come from sustainable or legal sources. The charity will now turn its expertise to doing the same thing for shoes, bags, bedding and other consumer products. We will be able to ensure that cows, goats and pigs that supply the leather have not been grazing on illegally cleared land’, said Scott Poynton, executive director of TFT.
But the average shoe has many other environmental issues we’ve been asked to address—chemicals used in the tanning process, and seriously nasty glues that are used to make shoes, bags and other products. Also, what about labour conditions in the factories? Macintosh, its leadership and its board of directors have taken the lead by committing their firm to transforming their supply chain and, in the case of leather, working with new farmers who are willing and able to produce the leather legally. Ends.
And it goes on and on and on
What a load of nonsense! Since when do farmers produce leather? Since when is leather produced illegally? Is it possible at all to produce leather illegally?
The leather industry has shown in the early 70s that is was ecology conscious and it built extremely costly water treatment plants in collaboration with local and national authorities. It still is environment conscious and tanners, either as a single unit or as clusters, are going out of their way to ensure that pollution is reduced. In many developing countries tanneries are still a source of serious pollution but governments are stepping in and demanding that tanners clean-up their act, and fast.
Does Poynton of the TFT, and the people who agree with his way of thinking, realise that the leather industry worldwide provides work to millions, probably tens of millions of people, and in particular in developing and under developed countries? Is Poynton and his group prepared to cut the livelihoods of these millions of workers and send them off begging after the international community went out of its way to create those jobs? Is it responsible to make these millions lose their jobs due to environmental extremism? These same workers are the buyers of shoes, bags and belts. If they are out of a job they will not be able to buy the products promoted by Poynton. Responsibility goes both ways: responsible production as in ‘we the trade’, and responsible distribution as in ‘we the retailers’.
I know nothing about tracing wood,
but I do know something about tracing leather. It is practically impossible. Cites succeeded for the hides and skins of animals that are threatened with extinction, but the numbers are minimal. Hides and skins of slaughter animals come worldwide in the millions. Per day! Now how can you keep an eye on these? I estimate that some 30% of these hides and skins are traded in an informal way or, said in clear English, are smuggled from one country to another, depending on the price these can fetch where or to circumvent export restrictions. I know for sure that a very renowned and esteemed European trader bought pigskins in the Soviet Union and shipped them to Japan in spite of the fact that it was illegal to ship Soviet pigskins to the land of the rising sun. The trick was simple and legal! The skins entered a West European country, were inspected by a veterinarian and once cleared and legally inside the country, they were considered ‘at home’ and when re-exported; they legally obtained a certificate of European origin and health. This sort of switching origin is still legal and can be done anytime and anywhere.
Greenpeace attack
When Greenpeace attacked the Brazilian abattoirs for their purchasing of cattle that was raised on land that was illegally obtained by destroying Amazon forests, they caused a huge uproar, but did they stop hides from being exported from Brazil? Official Brazilian export figures dropped like stones, but contemporarily export figures from Uruguay and Argentina increased. When Rwanda banned export of raw hides and skins, the country’s trade came to a grinding halt, officially, but unofficially it was business as usual with hides and skins disappearing by the truckload to surrounding countries.
Actions as announced by Poynton make sense and theoretically they are extremely to the point. There is no denying of that BUT, practically, I fear that such actions may do much more damage and harm than they will do good. Who will be able to trace and track hides and skins on a daily basis? Who keeps the records? Who guarantees that the figures are reliable? Who guarantees that there has been no switch of declaration of origin? The solution to deforestation is not within the power of the leather trade. We can cooperate of course, but actions must be taken at grass root level. Cattle farmers must be assisted to find alternatives that make deforestation unattractive. Simply prohibiting induces people to find their way around laws, rather than obeying them. The carrot is far better than the stick. How? Yeah, that is the big question to which I don’t have an answer, but then I did not raise the question in the first place. One solution would be that Poynton dialogues and consults representatives of the sector, but that’s difficult because nobody is actually representing the sector. There are some very effective national associations but retail would not bother to deal with each of them. Cotance? Well, that’s Europe and not all of it. In reality there is no discussion partner from the sector who could cooperate with Poynton’s organisation, and hence we risk that they do it all by themselves, which would make life difficult again. 

Sam Setter
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