In a recent article, industry commentator Mike Redwood observed that issues relating to traceability and transparency are increasingly important in the world of business and these issues are no less important in the leather industry. Consumers are driven more and more by ethical concerns and need reassurance that their choices are sustainable.

While the leather industry, particularly the automotive leather sector, faces unique challenges thanks to extended supply chains, it is doing more than ever to provide reassurance by putting robust tracing systems in place. Interestingly along with many other sectors, the leather industry is finding that transparency is a smart business move.

Redwood recalls a simpler age when every animal hide that came to a tannery would have unique marks indicating its provenance. There was a sense of connection between the processors, suppliers and the farmers – with animal husbandry at its core. But in today’s world, is that connection and care still possible?

Responsible and transparent leather production
Redwood cites the example of the fashion industry that is plagued with stories of bad practice and exploitation and supervised by loose regimes overseen by disinterested box-tickers. Somehow the leather industry gets tarred with the same brush. However, particularly regarding the European auto leather sector, there really should be no comparison. For example, Tatiana Shanina points out in her article ‘How traceability and plant-based material innovations are cleaning up the leather supply chain’, “some manufacturers source directly from slaughterhouses and can, therefore, trace their leather back to the animal”. Shanina also highlights the work done by the Leather Working Group who, she says, “is working with industry stakeholders to encourage and establish benchmarks for more responsible and transparent leather production”.

High tech tracing
The use of high-tech solutions to trace leather from producer to tannery is increasing and, this is a much more reliable method than the traditional marking of hides. Shanina gives the example of the ‘Syndicat Général des Cuirs et Peaux’ (French Hides Association) which is “currently collaborating with the CTC (Conseil National du Cuir) on implementing a new traceability process based on laser technology. This tool will allow them to (re)produce and easily ‘read’ a unique ID number given to an animal at its farm of origin or abattoir through permanent laser marking, enabling traceability from the raw hide until the finished leather.” Additionally, other companies such as BLC, Advanced DNA Services and Haelixa are working on a DNA traceability scheme which they suggest “signifies a new, more reliable way of tracing leather to its source, in comparison to existing hide stamping and barcode techniques”.

Enhancing supply chain transparency
Meanwhile, there are many other initiatives currently underway aimed at enhancing supply chain transparency. The Leather Working Group and the Sustainable Leather Foundation includes a section in their audit protocol and standards to assess a supplier’s ability to trace its raw material back to the slaughterhouse. Furthermore, the UNECE Sustainable Textile and Leather Traceability project is working with multiple industries to develop a futureproof system for traceability.

As we have reported before, the automotive leather sector has recently been investing in systems and technologies for full traceability in their manufacturing and, as a result, can offer customers peace of mind when it comes to the sustainability of their production process. Tanneries are also working closer than ever with meat producers to implement more robust traceability systems because of the EU food standards (some hide components end in food grade gelatin). It is worth pointing out here, incidentally, that 100% of animals used for automotive leather are slaughtered primarily for meat consumption. The hides/skins are, therefore, a by-product that would otherwise go to waste. Not only that, but automotive leather tanners also use leather sourced from the European meat industry, which is governed by the highest standards of animal welfare in the world. The downstream traceability is also enhanced because cut car seat components are carefully traced in case of quality claims by the final consumer.

Highest standards
Although there is no specific EU legislation for the leather industry, measures concerning the environment, chemical usage, the marketing and use of certain dangerous substances, and using animal by-products, do apply. Therefore, the impression sometimes given by opponents of an unregulated industry are untrue: on the contrary, the EU currently has no fewer than “143 standards with relevance to leather products”.

From threat to opportunity
Above all, there is now an ongoing willingness within the leather industry to address sustainability and transparency issues in general. It is driven, in part, by sustainability being the belief of the Twenty-First Century and, admittedly, also by pressure from NGOs with their own agendas. However, another motivation is even stronger: it simply makes good business sense to be open. In the article ‘Supply Chain Collaboration for Transparency’ the authors refer to a fashion group that felt pressured by an influential NGO to disclose information about their supply chain. The group reacted and shared the information reluctantly at first, with the sole aim of protecting their brand image. However, the very act of sharing information changed the groups perspective “from a legitimacy driven reactive approach toward an ethics driven proactive approach”. In short, the fashion group discovered that it was possible to turn what seemed like a threat into an advantage – something more and more ethical leather businesses are coming to appreciate.

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