Over one hundred delegates – including brand representatives, retailers and tanneries from around the world – participated in the “Sustainability in the leather supply chain Conference” organised in Hong Kong on March 14, one of the most important and expected events of the leather exhibition. Sponsored by Silvateam, Stahl, JBS Couros, Deichmann, Conseil National du Cuir, as well as by this magazine chosen as exclusive media sponsor, the important annual conference organised by Eurofins|BLC together with APLF, this time put the spotlight on “emerging risks” in the leather industry, in other words on the most current challenges that the actors of the supply chain are called to face: the chemical compliance of materials and products and the ongoing behaviour change especially amoung young consumers. To go over the complexity of the subject, a list of qualified international speakers ranged among the most different topics, from the complexity of regulations to the needs of communication, from traceability to waste management, from behaviours of Generation Z to the longevity of the leather product.
After the introduction made by Peter Hughes, Sustainability Lead, Eurofins|BLC Leather Technology Centre Ltd, the conference opened with the paper of Eric Poles of Silvateam who spoke about the full sustainability and healthiness of vegetable tannins, illustrating the life cycle of the trees from whose barks tannins are extracted, pointing out that these productions help to defend forests and biodiversity, in addition to the important social related aspects such as the sustenance of local populations. Poles also presented a recent study that demonstrated the high antibacterial properties of vegetable tannins making them particularly suitable for the tanning of footwear leather.
Carmen Chan, Board member of the ZDHC Foundation – which includes 125 stakeholders among brands, retailers, tanneries and chemical companies – recalled how the fashion industry is considered among the most polluting in the world and that the way to reduce its impact on the environment is still very long. Chan stressed the importance of a collective approach, because “a company alone can do little”, along with the need to move from a simple product compliance logic to a “pro-active supply chain management”. The speaker then recalled the famous “roadmap to zero” of ZDHC, that is the program born in 2011 for the gradual abandonment of the most harmful chemicals and in general for the use of a less impacting and safer chemistry, and finally announced the upcoming release of the version 2.0 list of restricted substances (MRSL) and new training programs.
The experience of the textile supply chain, which in some ways is similar to the leather supply chain, was reported by Antoine Bois Lemarquis, Group CSR Operations Director of AQM, an international company that provides consulting and training services to the fashion industry, such as the development of environmental management systems, pollutant waste management, traceability and so on.
Another corporation that, like ZDHC, has among its primary objectives the reduction in the use of harmful substances in the fashion world is Afirm Group, which however has its focus on the finished product, namely footwear and clothing. John Moraes, Footwear Chemical Compliance Manager, Nike (on behalf of AFIRM Group), one of the brands that in 2004 gave birth to this organisation run by volunteers and which today brings together 27 big names ranging from H&M to Hugo Boss, from Adidas to Puma, talked about it. “In 2012 – said Moraes – we adopted a common list of restricted substances”. A list drawn up on the basis of what criteria? he was asked: The answer will disturb those who already complain about the adoption of excessively restrictive rules by fashion brands: “For each substance we have chosen the most stringent limit among those set in the various countries,” explained the manager of Nike.
Dorothea Flockert, Global Project Manager CSR/ Sustainability of Deichmann, brought to the conference the point of view of a retailer, in this case a German family company born in 1913 that boasts a turnover of 5.8 billion euro and sells about 176 million pairs of shoes a year through almost 4,000 points of sale in 26 countries, between Europe and the United States. Leather shoes represent for Deichmann only 10% of the total but we are talking about considerable volumes: about 18 million pairs a year. The biggest concern in this regard is the possible presence of chromium VI in the leather that is subject to ageing tests in special laboratories. Deichmann is actively collaborating with both shoe manufacturers and tanneries of its supply chain and adheres to CADS, the German association founded in 2007 under the umbrella of the German Shoe Institute which focuses on supply chain and environmental protection issues.
Session 2 of the Conference was inaugurated by Stahl’s Director of Sustainability, Michael Costello, who reported the interesting results of a research made on Generation Z, or young people born after 1995, who are particularly sensitive to climate change issues (see Greta Thunberg) and consequently also to the transparency of the products they buy, so much that 49% of them say they are willing to spend a little more for eco-compatible products but also to boycott (31%) companies which are less environment-friendly. It is interesting to note that research shows that the very young (with the exception of vegans) perceive the leather as a material like any other, which is neither good nor bad, but neutral, without being accompanied by any particular emotional aftermath. Obviously there is a communication gap that could be filled for the benefit of the sector. Costello has therefore recalled all the challenges that the leather industry is facing in recent years, from the management of chemical risk to transparency, from measuring the environmental footprint with the LCA methodology to the circular economy.
Even the French consultant and fashion expert, Jayne Estève-Curé, spoke at length of changes in fashion product consumers, increasingly sensitive to ethical and ecological issues, according to whom we are experiencing a period of profound change that heralds the advent of a new era, also favoured by the possibilities offered by the new technologies that today push on the “instantaneity” of the purchase and on the customisation of products.
Sarah Nichols, General Counsel of the Australian leather goods company Bellroy, emphasised the importance of the intrinsic values of leather, first of all its longevity which already makes it a highly sustainable material, underlining the difficulty of managing a truly sustainable supply chain to be considered a true “work in progress”, but also the need to carry out honest and transparent communication with consumers.
Last but not least, Fernando Bellese, Marketing & Sustainability at JBS Couros, talked about the great commitment of the Brazilian food giant towards sustainability, starting from animal welfare and in terms of transparency and traceability of leathers. Bellese has therefore launched a great novelty: “Kind Leather”, a new concept of leather processing with low environmental impact, as the result of two years research, which ensures a better cutting yeld in view of considerable resource and chemical savings reducing CO2 emissions by 65%.
Finally, the conference ended with a panel discussion that saw the participation of all the speakers who answered questions from the audience.