Why us?

4 October 2010

It appears that we can talk about ecology all year round and maybe I should stop limeblasting on this subject for a while. However, it is too rewarding to be able to talk about it and land some uppercuts on some prominent chins. Last month I was made aware of the existence of LWG. Have you ever heard of this acronym? I bet you have not, but you ought to take a look because LWG stands for Leather Working Group and from where I sit they make life in the leather industry difficult rather than making it easier.

LWG is an independent group made up of ‘stakeholders’ among who include chemical producers, tanners, trade associations and major brands that source products containing leather. The LWG was formed around five years ago when some leading international brands contacted BLC to establish an environmental protocol to measure the environmental performance of leather producers. Until recently details of the LWG was located on the BLC website but now the group have their own separate website – www.leatherworkinggroup.com Although, BLC set-up the LWG protocol they do not own it and they hosted the site until the independent site was established.
The objective of this multi-stakeholder group ‘is to develop and maintain a protocol that assesses the compliance and environmental performance of tanners and promotes sustainable and appropriate environmental business practices within the footwear leather industry. The group seeks to improve the tanning industry by creating alignment on environmental priorities, bringing visibility to best practices and providing suggested guidelines for continual improvement’. I will hopefully be forgiven for translating this to ‘dancing to the tune of environmental action groups such as Greenpeace, PETA, Stella McCartney, Brigitte Bardot and others’.
Ecology is fine and well, I have stated that many times and over again, but it is also BIG business. It’s a publicity argument for those who wish to show themselves holier than thou. Ecology is used also as blackmail from the pressure groups in terms of ‘if you do as we want then you will be able to sell your stuff, whereas if you don’t we’ll see to it that you close down’. I still wonder how many people who go to a shop to buy leather products demand ecologically tanned leather originating from animals that are not raised on illegally exploited land. Why is nobody commissioning a statistical report on this subject? Probably activists are too afraid that the ‘woman/man in the street’ simply doesn’t care and that would ruin their fun, wouldn’t it?
Rather than hashing over the same stuff and chewing the same bones, let me turn the knife around. It has been stated over and again that growing an animal creates more CO2 emissions than tanning its hide, I think the proportion is around 70:1. By just living and growing, an animal is polluting. People’s beloved pets individually produce more CO2 emissions than me or you jetting around the world, and when you and I hop on a plane we are supposed to act as responsible citizens and pay for CO2 compensation. How much do pet owners pay? Nothing! On the contrary, they actually actively collaborate to produce excessive CO2 by having a pet and by feeding it. Have you noticed that year after year the pet departments at supermarkets increase their space by adding more food varieties, more chewable toys etc. These items have to be produced and their production adds to industrial pollution, increase the need to catch more fish, slaughter more chicken and cattle etc. All these pets ate, when I was young, the leftovers of a family dinner. I am NOT saying kill the pets or stop feeding them. I am only saying that people kindly reflect on this. When people criticise our industry, and worse, that industry members play up to this criticism, we should remind them, that each and every citizen has his or her own weakness and contributes one way or another to environmental problems. So why is there this urgent and impelling need to stalk only a part of the problem, ie the leather industry. Let’s be fair and tackle also other industries even if that is less attractive. Hitting out at the leather industry is easy, because there is nobody who defends the industry. If you’d hit out at the pet food industry you’d have a billion protesters on the streets.
Furthermore nobody gives publicity to facts that are written in a very interesting book ‘Gomorra’. Gomorra walks through the daily life of the Neapolitan mafia. The book states that each night up to ten containers of illegal products enter Europe via Naples from copied Gucci bags to toothpaste and hairdryers. These products are distributed all over Europe. Some containers are caught, the majority finds its way to the end consumer, who does not ask if the false Gucci bag they buy is made of ecological leather. The end consumer doesn’t even know how to distinguish leather from non-leather. It looks like leather, it smells like leather, so it must be leather….. What the consumer considers when he/she purchases is design, colour and price. The same book narrates how big fashion brand names use illegal labour all over Europe to produce cashmere or other expensive garments paying workers close to nothing. The same workers work 12/14 hours for a pittance and sleep in places you would not put your dog. NOBODY protests against this. The police raid these places regularly and all over Europe TV news show what’s going on, but have you heard LWG, Greenpeace, PETA, Brigitte or Stella utter one single word in condemnation? Trees in the Amazon, traceability of leather, pet food, animals being killed for their hides, are all more important topics than the use of slave labour in Europe used for the production of high fashion brand products. The important thing here is that the label can legally state that the product is made in Europe and that it makes the highest possible profit by paying next to nothing to the workers. How the production is run is of nobody’s concern. We make a big fuss about China’s use of prison labour, and India’s use of child labour, but we close both eyes, our noses and ears when it comes to human beings who are working in sub-human conditions.
So let all those people in the leather trade who want to smell like roses, focus on what we are doing right and what others do wrong before compelling the industry to adapt itself to new ideas that make our life even more difficult. Instead of manipulating the conscience of this industry, which has shown a great sense of responsibility, let’s play a little bit with the conscience of others. Let’s attack rather than be always on the defensive. We are not environmental crooks or outcasts!
I started saying that ecology is BIG business. Do you realise how many people get their meal tickets from tree hugging? Greenpeace is an employer, so is PETA, some NGOs have higher costs in salaries, rent, travel tickets, cars than they pay out to the poor. People get jobs from professionally criticizing, jobs, which they have to defend. I am told that LWG is not employing people, so even assuming all are volunteers, there are still consultants to be paid who audit tanners and if these consultants are paid by the tanners, who benefit from ‘deserving’ the LWG gold, silver or bronze status, one can only guess how objective the system is. If they would praise our industry, they would become redundant.
As it stands at the moment, when we are told to jump, we jump. We give our critics the greatest satisfaction by promptly complying with whatever, even outrageous, demand they put forward. We even have people within the sector who work against instead of defending our industrial interest. If we fight back, we would be left alone or at least be able to run our industry in a socially conscientious and responsible way without others telling us what to do. 

Sam Setter
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