Awareness and transparency. Smit & Zoon has recently published its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Report, highlighting the environmental and social performance achieved by the Dutch chemical-tanning company which this year celebrates 200 years of activity. The report is describing the company’s challenges for the future and the progress it is making towards its mission “to create a socially and environmentally sustainable leather supply chain by 2025”. In this interview with Egbert Dikkers, Global Director Sustainability, we talk about the safety of chemical products and the reduction of the environmental footprint, the evolution towards bio-based chemistry and particularly effective alternative tanning systems. Without ever forgetting to properly communicate industry information worldwide.

Egbert Dikkers, Global Director Sustainability

You have just published the CSR Report 2020. What are the company's major achievements as regards environmental and social performance? 
“Our 8th annual report covers our 2020 challenges and progress towards our mission to create a socially and environmentally sustainable leather value chain. Despite of a hectic year, in which Covid19 played a significant role, we are very proud of the major milestones we accomplished.
We launched a number of innovations with the aim to reduce the environmental footprint and improve safety. These innovations include the new Biopol Range, the Optitan Range and Aguastop W200. Innovations that are the result of previous experiences with life cycle analysis, a better insight into our product portfolio, a deeper understanding of the improvement potential and an intense collaboration with our customers. Our major innovation is our sustainable tanning concept Zeology, launched by Nera, a new subsidiary of Smit & Zoon. We also managed to have a major part of our product portfolio certified in accordance with the highest ZDHC Conformance Level, level 3. Smit & Zoon strongly believes that the ZDHC is supporting brands, consumers and society by favoring better chemistry creating safer products for consumers, better working conditions for people and a cleaner environment”.

In which direction has Smit & Zoon worked to improve the safety of leather chemicals? 
“The safety of chemicals and the safe use of chemicals is one of our strategic priorities and one where we as one of the industry leaders can play a prominent role. It is for this reason that Smit & Zoon was one of the first contributors to the ZDHC program focusing on removing hazardous substances from the leather value chain and more specifically out of our own product range. Our R&D teams have done a remarkable job in replacing chemical substances or developing new products where needed. At the same time, we have continued our internal and external programs focusing on safe use of chemicals. This includes getting a common understanding how you can work safe with chemicals. Examples include to ensure that our agents, distributors and customers have access to the latest Safety Data Sheets in their own language, to provide and accept chemical product samples in the right packing and with the right labeling, ensuring a good inventory of available chemicals and understand their risk and so on. Last but not least, we need to ensure that people working with chemicals use personal protection equipment as a last resource. We expect from our own teams as well as from our agents and distributors that they show leadership, 24/7. By wearing personal protection equipment where needed, but most of all to understand the risks and act accordingly when working with chemicals”.

Last fall you launched the Zeology tanning system as a truly sustainable and alternative to traditional tannage. Can you synthesize its benefits and tell us why it should become the new tanning standard? 
“Zeology was developed as a sustainable alternative to existing tanning agents. It is chrome-free, heavy metal-free and aldehyde-free. Therefore, the main benefit is for the environment: less pollution, less discharge of chemicals in waste and wastewater, no use of chromium or glutardialdehyde (GDA) and improved biodegradability of tanned material. What makes Zeology unique, compared to both traditional tanning agents and other existing sustainable alternatives, is that it delivers both sustainability benefits and superior leather performance. Zeo White, the Zeology-tanned leather intermediate, is unsurpassed in characteristics such as grain tightness, physical leather properties, lightfastness and heat-resistance. In addition, its bright white color, enables white leather, and lighter and brighter colors than were ever possible before”.

What other innovations of Smit & Zoon represent a step forward in terms of reducing the environmental footprint of the leather production? 
“Since several years our R&D teams together with Universities and research institutes have been looking into replacing fossil-based chemistry to bio-based chemistry. And we are proud that we have been able to introduce several new product lines including Biopol and Optitan. Both lines have a strong focus on improving the environmental footprint while on the other hand maintain or improve the physical characteristics of leather. Next to this, our Product Passport is our way of showing transparency to the leather manufacturer and the brands about our products’ performance in the production process. We notice that the collaboration projects with our customers and the brands are changing. More and more discussions relate to the effect on the footprint, the savings that can be obtained later in the process or the technical benefits that can be obtained. Of course, the price of the chemical is still important, but it is good to notice that collaboration projects that are build on trust focus on a more holistic view instead of to much focus on the specific costs in a small part of the leather manufacturing process. This approach is crucial to find true breakthroughs and make a positive contribution to lowering the environmental footprint. Next to this, we focus on sharing our knowledge on biodegradability and related topics through webinars and white papers that we publish”.

What are your next long-term goals?
“Being a 7th generation family company celebrating 200 years of existence this year, long term goals have guided us. Our mission is to create a socially and environmentally sustainable leather value chain. This mission is at the heart of all of my colleagues worldwide and each of them is doing their thing to support this mission. To reach our mission, collaboration is of key importance. For Smit & Zoon this means collaboration and partnerships with our customers, the brands, industry organizations and NGO’s.
I also want to stress the need to communicate to consumers. I have been in the leather industry for approximately 30 years and I am impressed about the progress that has been made by the major part of our industry. However, as an industry, we should not forget to ensure that this progress is visible for the consumer. Still an estimated 60% of young generations thinks that the animal is killed for leather or that leather is made like in the tourist tanneries in Fez, Morocco. This in fact is the main threat to our industry, with people making buying decisions based on wrong or at least doubtful facts!
It is for this reason that I think the major challenge for Smit & Zoon, but in fact for the whole industry is to tell the truthful story about leather to consumers. Leather is a material with unique characteristics that will support the creation of a circular and ethical society. Leather Naturally association (of which Dikkers is president, editor’s note) was set up to educate and promote leather to consumers, to brands and to any one who wants to understand this material. Smit & Zoon is convinced that Leather Naturally is crucial for our industry to tell the story on a global scale. I kindly invite you to join Leather Naturally as a member and support their digital platform with a financial contribution”.