At this stage of our analysis on leather, I hope you would have been persuaded that sustainability isn’t the latest fad brands have come up with but rather a priority that will redesign all leather manufacturing activities across the world, shaping the traditional customer-leather supplier relationship.
As already mentioned in my first and second post, the new generation of consumers are moving their power of preference away from unsustainable products. Better: they would never consciously accept to buy an unsustainable product, particularly in the fashion business. Retailers and brands have become so aware about risks to their reputation if any kind of unsustainable practice is found along the production process that they have started, taking a different approach to managing risk such as the acquisition of upstream suppliers, like tanneries.
Brands increasingly secure themselves a constant supply of good quality material and the full control of the most sensitive issues along the entire supply chain. From the brand perspective, the acquisition of tanneries is a viable yet expensive risk management strategy. However, this vertical integration operation from one side may threaten the independence of tanneries and from the other side be an opportunity. If tanneries want to be deemed as efficient, healthy, resilient, transparent and irreplaceable leather suppliers for brands and so stop being appointed as the weakest and most unsustainable link of the brands’ supply chain, they should start to rethink their “sustainable approach” and, consequently, their risk management strategy.
I believe that there are two kinds of approaches that tanneries can take on in order to meet brands’ expectations and be sustainable-virtuous supplier. The first kind can be referred to as a “compliance-driven approach”: tanneries are responsive to brands’ basic requests and provide them with sufficient evidence of international standards compliance.
Certifications, covering almost all possible scopes, clearly prove the fulfilment of a set of criteria from the “compliance-driven” tanneries.
ISO 14001 (environment), OHSAS 18001 (occupational health and safety), SA 8000 (social accountability) are examples of a non compulsory social-environmental certification, which provide assurance to brands that different aspects of sustainability are being taking into account, measured and improved along the tannery’s production process.
Besides the above mentioned certifications that have become almost compulsory, there are other voluntary auditing schemes, resulting from sector initiatives such as the Leather Working Group.
These are more or less the ingredients of a compliance-driven relationship between leather customers and tanneries that try to mitigate the risk to be associated with unsustainable practices by communicating transparently mandatory information about the leather product and its manufacturing process.
However, if tanneries still want to remain competitive nowadays, they can only take up a proactive rather than reactive approach, which would mean treating sustainable issues as an opportunity rather than a costly value-add or a threat, and this is the second kind of an approach I was referring to.
Following this reasoning, tanneries will not just comply with brands’ requests in terms of sustainability, but will anticipate them; they will not struggle to keep up with new production systems, but they will actively participate in the development of new technological and organisational solutions; in addition, cost savings will pay off tanneries’ investments. As a result of this proactive approach, not only do tanneries be able to strengthen the relationship with their leather customers, thus mitigating the risk of being replaced by another leather supplier, but they also gain in reliability, efficiency and productivity.
So, what should the proactive tannery do on the dimensions of sustainability? This third blog provides a possible answer on the environmental one: Life Cycle Assessment.
It focuses on the environmental footprints of the entire life cycle of leather product from the raw material stage through all its manufacturing phases. It takes into account the impacts of chemicals, the carbon footprint of material transportation as well as of solid waste disposal and wastewater treatment operations, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the entire leather making process.
From the brand perspective, LCA proves to be more effective in building a transparent and reliable supply chain than traditional certifications.
Photo credit: leathersustainability.com
Through adopting these tools, the proactive tannery would be enabled to provide far more than a simple product. Sustainable leather becomes a service so as to satisfy the most demanding leather customer. Quality and price are not enough to guarantee tanneries a long-standing relationship with brands and sustainability is undoubtedly one of the major selection criteria of leather suppliers.