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Leather processing

Old industry, ­very slow change

by Christian Dietsche, Nicole Reps
Most shoes and leather goods sold in rich countries come from factories in developing and newly industrialising countries, where production costs are low. At first sight, this arrangement serves all parties involved: consumers in the wealthy nations get cheap products, and jobs are created in poor countries. However, there is a risk of race to the bottom. As costs are kept low to withstand the pressure of global competition, ecological and social standards are all too often neglected. For India, integration into the global market is a doubled-edged sword. [ By Christian Dietsche and Nicole Reps ]

The process of globalisation brought about radical changes in the international leather industry. Since the 1950s, production of leather and leather goods has gradually shifted away from Germany and other established industrial nations to low-wage countries. This development benefited industry in India, which is now the manufacturing base of major European brands such as Deichmann, Gabor and Ecco. Some 2.5 million people are employed in this sector. With export earnings of about € 2 billion, India is now the world’s third largest producer of leather and leather goods behind China and Italy.

Not only is the leather industry one of India’s most important sectors, it is also one of the most harmful to the environment. Huge volumes of wastewater are discharged, charged with salts, solvents and chrome tanning agents. Though India’s environmental legislation is technically as tough as that of industrial nations, compliance is not adequately monitored – and undermined by corruption.

Cheap consumer goods

Such negative side effects are particularly evident in Kanpur, an industrial town in the North of the country. Kanpur is one of the most important centres for India’s leather industry. The industry grew rapidly during the colonial period, meeting the demand of the British military. Traces of the colonial are still to be seen there today. On top of standard men’s and women’s shoes, equestrian products and safety footwear are the main items produced in Kanpur. Local tanneries provide the leather. With around 90,000 employees, the leather sector in one of the city’s most important industries.

Kanpur’s leather industry is geared towards the international market. There are about 400 exporters operating from the city. They mostly supply wholesalers and discount-retailers in Europe and North America. Purchasers often consider nothing but prices; they do not pay attention to how goods are manufactured. A manufacturer’s success, therefore, neither requires up-to-date technical equipment nor innovative products. Apart from the price, nothing else matters.

Importers seldom give specifications for the leather used either, so there is no reason for manufacturing firms to require that tanneries comply with standards. Leather quality, low pollution levels and the environment are secondary to the lowest possible price. The cost pressure from the international retailers of cheap goods is thus passed down the entire supply chain. Many tanneries in Kanpur are therefore trapped in an early industrial phase – characterised by simple manufacturing technology, poor working condi-tions and high levels of environmental damage.

Typically, they use tanning chemicals inefficiently and in large quantities. Wastewater treatments plants are not operated properly, so toxic wastewater is allowed to flow freely into the Ganges, a river considered holy by Hindus. Wastewater also pollutes Kanpur’s ground water, which is used both for drinking and irrigation purposes. Fruit and vegetables sold in local markets are heavily contaminated with toxic substances. Environmental pollution therefore has a direct effect on the health of the local people.

Driving factors from the world market

Despite this generally negative trend, there are also some cases of positive develop-ment in the leather sector in Kanpur. This is so in particular in the case of companies that supply well-known brands, because brand-name firms have to comply with certain standards.

The managers of these brands make sure that their international suppliers comply with similar standards too, and this applies both to the raw materials used and the manufacturing practices. Indian manufacturers that supply major brands thus are under pressure to modernise their production processes and improve the quality of their products.

By cooperating with high-quality brand companies, they gain access to the latest know-how. At the premium end of the market, inspections ensure the quality of production processes and leather. The requirements of brand-name companies have an impact on tanneries in Kanpur. The producers must prove that their leather does not exhibit any elevated levels of contaminants. Some brand-name companies send inspectors to productions facilities to monitor quality, others demand that suppliers get certificates from independent institutes. Tanneries that provide this segment of the market use chemicals more sparingly and more efficiently. As a result, there is less environmental damage.

For large brand-name companies, it is often not enough to provide high-quality products. Westerners are becoming increasingly aware of issues such as environmental pollution and child labour. This puts pressure on brand-name companies. Many of them are therefore now taking account of production processes and their consequences in India, forcing manufacturers to undergo social audits, for instance, or to make sure that effluent treatment plants are fully operational.

For manufacturers in this segment, integration into global markets leads not only to technological development and product improvements, but also to environmental and social progress. Nevertheless, they remain dependent on the brands that market their products. It is nearly impossible for them to establish a presence of their own on the world market, whereas the global brands companies can easily switch to other suppliers. They purchase only the raw product, so the particularly profitable steps in the creation of value (design, product development, marketing) remain in the hands of the global giants.

To some extent, however, Indian manufacturers can benefit from better products and processes domestically. The middle classes with considerable purchasing power are growing fast and, correspondingly, so is the demand for high quality shoes. Firms that are able to meet global quality standards have the advantage in this segment over long-established manufacturers which specialise in the production of simple, cheap shoes.

Outlook

As seen with the example of the production of leather goods in Kanpur, involvement in global markets can produce a positive impetus for traditional sectors of industry in developing countries. However, only a small share of the leather businesses in Kanpur actually take part in this kind of environmental and social progress. The local industry association reckons that only ten to 15 % of the Kanpur-based firms are using up-to-date technology. The rest is stuck in price-driven, cheap production – successfully so, but to the detriment of the environment and social welfare.

The high standards demanded by global brand-name companies can stimulate mod-ernisation in the leather industry. Comprehensive progress for the entire leather industry in Kanpur, however, will only come about once there is comprehensive re-think involving all players. Consumers’ sensitivity to issues of ecological and social impacts can make the difference. It is well understood that demand for low-price products is damaging the environment and hurting people. It is up to consumers to stem this trend by demanding that companies adhere to the principles of sustainability.