Trace to the finish

30 November 2017

ICEC’s recent certification schemes to provide full traceability for raw materials ought to be viewed as an opportunity, rather than a threat. Andrea Guolo gauges the response of some leading tanners to the measures.

Luxury brands need a barcode that tells the story of a finished leather, from the animal’s birth through to tanning. The possibility of a high-end company being attacked in the press and over social media for its lack of control of its supply chain, is absolutely to be avoided.

This is not only a matter of sustainability, but also of ethics and animal welfare. The pressures exerted by the prestige holdings, in particular the two giants LVMH and Kering (which together control more than 30 fashion brands, 20 of which specialise in leather products), have led tanneries to launch certification paths to provide traceability for their raw materials.

ICEC, the Italy-based tanning certification institute, implemented three certification schemes, called TRC_PC_412 (traceability of raw materials for homogeneous products), TRC_PM_414 (traceability of products) and TRC_SC_410 (traceability of raw materials, product system).

This is the last frontier of tanning certification and – considering the weight of the players it involves – is certain to be successful. ICEC has so far issued 11 certifications, and the activity is gaining momentum, and now covers at least 15 other companies in Italy and abroad, including some tanneries and manufacturers in Eastern Europe and North Africa.

Certified traceable tanneries also appear in Turkey, such as Marmara Deri and Sevimli Deri, but the company that has so far invested most is the Italian tanning group Russo di Casandrino, chaired by UNIC president Gianni Russo, with two obtained traceability certifications.

There has been strong interest from tanneries specialising in sheepskins, and the reason for this seems to be linked to luxury brands such as Bottega Veneta, which is the only company certified by ICEC for product traceability.

“Some luxury sheepskin buyers are improving their requests for guarantees in traceability,” says ICEC director Sabrina Frontini, “and consequently we note an increase in certification requests in Italy’s Solofra district, which specialises in tanning sheep and goatskins.

“There is also a special demand from Tuscany linked to reptile and exotic skins, because with new certifications it is possible to have additional information, if compared with Cites protocols, on breeding and slaughtering sites. Looking ahead, considering the high-end brand’s attention to this issue, it may increase demand from companies specialising in calfskin and goatskin.”

Pros and cons

Transparency is certainly a matter of interest for consumers who pay a lot of money and want to be certain that the leather bag or a pair of shoes has ethical and moral worth, as well as economic value.

On the other hand, if brands decide to exclude certain sources for the application of slaughter methods considered to be cruel – such as in the Islamic world where the halal method is used – or for reasons related to deforestation, it is clear that the sources from which tanneries draw their materials would shrink, and it is not difficult to imagine the consequences for the prices of ‘approved’ hides. The sheepskin market, for example, is already heavily imbalanced between the values of the most qualitative origins, such as southern African, Spain, and the cheaper ones such as those from the Middle East.

Blocking purchases from this area could increase the differential and the bill could fall on populations of less-favoured regions, reducing their income from farming activities. Another concern is the overall cost sustained by tanneries to address the complex theme of sustainability (which also includes traceability).

The impression of the tanners is that while approval will provide them with a kind of passport to remain in the luxury domain, it may not create adequate recognition in terms of added value, and burden them with excessive internal bureaucracy. Every brand tends to follow its own operating mode in controlling supplier’s sustainability, and it is not uncommon to observe different procedures between brands controlled by the same company.

These non-harmonised customer checks become a real obstacle for tanners, especially in Europe, where tanning is already subject to restrictive national rules, and where tanneries had already obtained more than adequate certifications. The absence of general guidelines (globally valid) and the weight gained by luxury holdings has caused chaos, with requests from customers for the sort of commercially sensitive information about the leather chain that tanneries do not gladly give.

This refers not only to information related to tannery supply chains, but also to the use of certain chemicals, as well as the provenance of hides and skins. Divulging more information will make it easier for a brand to handle tanning operations directly.

The obvious choice

Certified traceability is an obvious choice for tanneries. ICEC has tackled this topic scrupulously and refuses to compile blacklists on the countries of origin, merely certifying the degree of tanning control on their supplies. Each brand will then be free to evaluate the origins of skins purchased on the basis of their own risk maps, and it is clear that European origins will offer them greater certainty than those outside the EU for economic, social and animal welfare reasons. It should also be noted that no brands have yet been closed as a result of certification.

“What really matters is the quality of the materials, but it is clear that if the governments of the countries concerned adopt unacceptable policies from a Western point of view, some resistance could emerge,” says Michele Gallucci, of the A.M2 Leather agency in Solofra.

Certified traceability obtained from its customers has not involved particular changes for A.M2 Leather’s business. “For years, we’ve certified our origins lot by lot,” says Gallucci. “Now, we provide more detail on the chain processes, accompanying tanners to visit the farms, the slaughtering plants and the first tanning operations done in the country of origin.”

Certified tanneries also tend to highlight the positive aspects of the ongoing process.

“We have taken a road that guarantees the end customer an in-depth knowledge of the origin of the products, and I believe that procedures will be constantly improved in the mid-term,” says Sabatino Vignola, owner of the Vignola Nobile tannery in Solofra, which received TRC_ PC_412 certification in September 2017.

“Initially, we had some difficulties in obtaining the information from our suppliers, but even after an initial reticence, they realised that it was not a danger, but a form of collaboration,” says Giuseppe Volpi, owner of the Volpi tannery in Tuscany, which specialises in vegetable tanning and uses European origins.

For Volpi, the process of certifying traceability has not presented any particular problem. “The real interest is confined to the most prestigious brands,” he says. “The market is not only made by luxury. It will take some time before this consensus develops even among the simple producers and among the second-level brands.”

Luxury brands are driving the demand for fully traceable sheep and goatskins.
While traceability is certainly a valuable point of difference for luxury brands, some tanneries are worried that having to certify everything will lead to excessive bureaucracy, and may even lead to potentially sensitive information being made available to rival operations.

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