Eco-labelling and traceability

4 October 2010

Ecology has become an extremely important topic in today’s society. Personally, I do not think that the general public is very much concerned with ecology, but is pushed towards it by pressure groups both consciously and unconsciously. For some manufacturers or retailers, ecology is a form of publicity in terms of ‘we are green, so all green come and buy from us’. Without those pressure groups, whether institutional or private, we would live in a horribly polluted environment as we still see in some parts of the developing world. We have experience from the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster that pollution is not a locally containable occurrence, but a global event. Therefore if tanneries do not pollute in Europe, and if their production is relocated elsewhere where pollution laws are non-existent, or where they are not implemented, then global ecology has gained nothing. The pollution has in that case just been relocated together with the production but returns to Europe through the air and by sea.

That’s why we start talking about eco labelling, which should ensure that pollution is not relocated. However, if you want to introduce eco labelling to certify that a product is produced in ways and methods that are environmentally friendly, then you need to create a verifiable tracking and tracing system. It is totally useless for a shoe company to self-certify that they produce their shoes according to the required ecological standards, when they buy their leather from a factory that dumps its effluent in the nearest river and its raw fleshings and shavings into nearby land.
To start with, one needs precise standards, like that required from a production process to be called ecologically acceptable? I guess that if you import leather or leather products into the EU, then those leathers and leather products need to be produced in factories that are compliant with EU effluent laws. These standards must be global, because it is not the case that one country’s eco-laws are the same as those of another country. You can therefore be compliant in one country and not compliant in another. Secondly, you need to introduce a tracking system, because a tannery in the Far East, for example, which we presume for argument’s sake, is compliant with EU effluent legislation and which can therefore conveniently export its leathers, may have bought wet-blue for further processing from some (African for example) tannery that is not compliant.
Bangladesh is a country that produces 99% of its leathers in the Hazaribagh tanning area where pollution control is non-existent (see April Leather International page 22). Exports of leather and leather products will eventually find their way to more ecologically conscious countries. To me, this means that those leathers or leather products are not eco-compliant. Furthermore a leather product is not composed only of leather, but can contain rubber, fabric, synthetics, composite products, each of which should also be eco compliant and eco-traceable. Who will, and even more importantly, who can check that? Many effluent plants are fake and others are reported to perform as advertised, but in reality they don’t. Hides and skins do not bear the flag of their country of origin; neither does the glue, shoelaces or sewing thread. We have seen that cosmetics and foodstuffs that contain toxic and even poisonous chemicals enter Europe both legally and illegally in large quantities. Only tests by local authorities, many random but mostly based on consumer concern when they are afflicted by dermatological problems, bring incredible situations to light. Likewise leathers have been impounded because they contain chemicals that can cause serious skin diseases and even cancer. Imagine this happens to stuff you apply to your body or eat! It is legitimate to ask what percentage of damaging goods are intercepted before they reach the consumer. If we go by what is written in newspapers, one can presume that only 20-25% or probably less of unacceptable products are caught. Tracing products with regards to their eco-compliancy throughout the value chain is on a far lower priority level than dealing with public health.
I am quite convinced that leather producing third-world countries will object to eco-labelling/traceability and even boycott attempts to regulate this matter, because pollution control as we all know has its price and influences the bottom line. This has been seen at all the international conferences that deal with pollution control, such as the Copenhagen conference last year. Europe demands effluent control, the US drag its feet and countries such as India, Mexico and Brazil flatly refuse to adopt clean technologies that endanger their export in terms of competitiveness. Big investments are required and I know for sure that international development organisations are asked to help single production units. The UN and western governmental organisations have not enough money to invest in all effluent plants that are needed, and helping one is not fair towards the others that do not enjoy this help. Furthermore they are reluctant to invest due to fact that these huge investments are sensitive to corruptive influences.
Having said this, one wonders what solution can be found. I think there is no solution. At least not now and whatever is being said on the subject in theory. If real eco-compliancy is seriously implemented, then you effectively stop 90% of African tanneries, plus a huge number of tanneries on the Indian sub continent and in the Far East. You would nullify all the immense investments that have been made so far, both privately and institutionally. If on the other hand eco-compliancy of the whole value chain can be reached, through whatever miracle, then cheap markets become less competitive or possibly not competitive at all. African tanners, but also tanners in China and the Indian sub continent, import large quantities of chemicals in order to reach an acceptable quality level for the exports.
If you add the cost of effluent control in order to become eco-compliant, then developing countries can close their tanneries, because price and quality cannot compete any more, or to a far lesser extent, with tanneries in developed countries. Europe, which began 35 years ago with pollution control, has written off the huge investments made and thus would become more competitive if this issue were tackled seriously.

Static flaying frame update
Although there is no connection with the subject of this Limeblast I would like to report that the Static flaying frame (SFF) installed with an electrical and not a hand operated pulley, through financing by the International Trade Centre in Geneva at the Société Modernes des Abattoirs in N’Djamena, Chad, is successfully operating, doing some 130 to 150 carcases per day. It shows, that if there
is a will there is a way. 

Sam Setter
[email protected]

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