Sustainable Leather Foundation Is Helping Us Build A Better Industry

Sustainable leather foundation is paving the way towards building a more transparent leather supply chain, with consumers and their values in mind. Read on to learn how.

The leather industry may seem like an enigma from a distance but technology is enabling the industry to address specific issues such as labor-related risks, environmental impact, and sources of incoming raw materials. We sat down with Deborah Taylor, Managing Director at Sustainable Leather Foundation (SLF) to learn more about how the leather industry could take a consumer centric approach to supply chain transparency.

Aims of the Sustainable Leather Foundation

The SLF is a truly independent entity that supports the leather industry to become sustainable in their operations, particularly in high producing countries to meet global environmental and social standards, and to then communicate that externally to the consumer.

During her time at the Leather Working Group, Deborah had the opportunity to address the needs of stakeholders across the leather value chain, from tanners to the brands, she visited treatment plants and witnessed first hand some of challenges they faced when it came to communicating to consumers about the efforts being made towards achieving a greater degree of social responsibility and environmental sustainability.

However, in March 2020, Deborah stepped down from her role to choose an alternative path. Not long after her decision to move on, she found herself on the core team of a UNECE project on advancing transparency and traceability of sustainable value chains in the garment and footwear industry. Coming on board as a leather expert, Deborah's role involved working on uncovering the supply chain from farm to post consumption, which is a much wider remit than anybody's attempted before.

It was soon after that, when she met up with a long-time colleague and an experienced educator of leather technology, Karl Flowers, that she realised the full potential of how far they could take things for the industry. A series of conversations led to the inception of the Sustainable Leather Foundation (SLF) in July 2020.

What does the SLF offer?

"We know that there is audit fatigue out there. And we don't want to be a burden of cost or resource for leather manufacturers. They have a big enough job at the moment trying to comply with all the different things that people want."

Deborah realises that auditing isn't perfect, but auditing is the only way to reference what goes on inside a facility. When auditing is done right, it becomes a means of improvement.

A key element of the work that the SLF is doing is related to communication. "If we're not externalising our efforts in clear, concise language that the consumers can understand, then we're failing and the industry will continue to stagnate or even to decline," says Deborah.

The SLF takes a two directional and holistic approach with their work. From the bottom up they work with tanneries to make operational changes. From the top-down, they work with industry leaders on translating their commitments into actionable steps that can be tracked throughout the leather value chain.

The foundation also provides stakeholders with a standard that evaluates a leather manufacturer's processes across the three pillars of sustainability:

  1. Environmental Impact
  2. Social Responsibility
  3. Governance

“The certification standard provides a mechanism to engage and understand the integrity of the leather value chain," Deborah explains. Having access to this information will allow consumers to make informed decisions.

Benefits to Consumers

"Every product has an impact, it doesn't matter what it is, there is always a production impact."

The way consumers can access information related to sustainable practices is through Point of Sales (POS) and QR code technology, which would be linked back to the Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) dashboard that breaks down consumption figures, audit reports and other relevant notes.

Having technology at the centre of this conversation will allow brands, OEMS and retailers to monitor their suppliers, while actively improving the integrity of their sustainability practices.

The SLF supports leather manufacturers across the spectrum, no matter where they are in their journey.

If a manufacturer has not fulfilled a certain audit standard, they will not be excluded - the dashboard will show transparently what criterions the manufacturer has already fulfilled and what is a work in progress.

Their goal is to ultimately be recognised as the global standard in support of a Sustainable Leather Industry over the next five years.

What does Innovation Look Like For The Leather Industry

"There are two ways of looking at innovation within the industry. The first being reducing impact and second being transparency."

Reducing Leather Industry's Environmental Impact

Deborah sees that up and coming tanning methods and technologies that are using a renewable and chrome-free are now showing good results in finished products. She highlights, "innovation within our industry should very much be based around techniques, processes, and procedures, how we can make things more efficient".  If there's a more diversified range of chemical solutions that cater to the environmental targets of major tanning regions around the world, that's an example of innovation from within the industry.

Defining Transparency For The Leather Industry

Supply chain transparency requires companies to know what is happening in the supply chain and to communicate this knowledge both internally and externally.

There are two reasons why the process has become increasingly important:

  1. Consumers are demanding it, and
  2. Having full visibility and effective communication can minimise exposure to reputational risks for companies.

When it comes to consumers, researchers at the MIT Sloan School of Management found that consumers may be willing to pay 2% to 10% more for products from companies that provide greater supply chain transparency. Thus, implying that consumers valued information on social responsibility, areas of good governance and better communication.

The way the leather industry can demonstrate transparency is by investing in technology. For example, looking into embedded markers in materials that can trace products on the shelves of stores to the farm.

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