Sustainable Production – Key to improving Zimbabwe leather sector (Opinion)

By Velile Dube 

Following Zimbabwe’s participation at the 2022 edition of the Asia Pacific Leather Fair (APLF) held in Dubai, ZimTrade in collaboration with the Zimbabwe Leather Collective (ZLC) is working on transforming the leather value chain into a certified and sustainable one. 

This will open Zimbabwean leather to a premium tier of buyers with an affinity for sustainably sourced and produced leather resulting in an increase in the value of leather exported. 

This move seeks to make Zimbabwe’s leather sector to be the first value chain globally to achieve sustainability certification which will have massive impact on the value of Zimbabwean leather. 

What is Sustainable Leather? 

With a growing global demand for more environmentally friendly products and services, many businesses are turning to sustainable leather made by responsible manufacturers. 

Today’s consumers are more mindful than ever before, and they expect the brands they purchase from to provide more than just a product or service. 

They want environmentally friendly products from ethical and transparent brands. 

This trend doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. 

As a result, the leather industry has been wrestling with the impact of leather production on the environment and how to address the challenges faced by most global supply chains in the modern age. 

This isn’t a new consideration, global brands and environmental certifications have been driving these changes for some time. 

Sustainable development is defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. 

Whilst this definition has been widely adopted, there is no standard definition or framework for sustainability that can be applied to all countries or systems. 

Leather Sustainability Criteria 

In terms of what that means for the leather industry, UNIDO’s 2019 Framework for Sustainable Leather Manufacture’ report defines the following areas of focus when considering leather sustainability: 

· Resources (hides/skins, chemicals, water, energy) 

· Emissions generated during the production process (solid, liquid, and gaseous wastes) 

· Quality and appeal of the final product, durability 

· Product use after end-of life 

Leather as a By-Product 

Leather derived from bovine, ovine, caprine, and porcine sources is a by-product of the meat industry — meaning animals are reared by the agricultural sector for the food sector, and the leather industry exists to process a by-product of the meat industry. 

To understand this further, it helps to look at the economic indicators to identify the drivers of this industry. 

The economic value of cattle varies depending on multiple factors, such as region, type, and demand. 

According to the 2018 EU leather PEFCR, the hide historically represented around three of the total value of an individual cow in Europe, with more recent estimates in the USA being closer to a percent for the best quality hides. 

The value of a hide can even be as low as zero, depending on fluctuations in the market, where the supply of hides far exceeds the demand for leather, which could result in raw hides going straight to landfill or being diverted to gelatine production. 

Responsible Manufacturing 

As with most global industries, leather manufacturers must contend with the potential impact of their production on the environment. 

Responsible manufacturing practices aim to reduce the amount of energy, water and chemicals used during production, as well as reducing the amount of solid waste, wastewater, and air emissions. 

Responsible leather manufacturers often turn to certifications such as the Sustainable Leather Foundation (SLF) and Leather Working Group (LWG) Leather Manufacturer Audit Protocol (LMAP) as a testament of their commitment to sustainable leather manufacturing to their potential and existing customers. 

LWG’s flagship certification has been assessing leather manufacturing facilities based on the environmental impact of their manufacturing processes for over 15 years. 

The LWG’s audit standard covers a variety of factors of leather manufacturing, including water use, energy consumption, chemical management, disposal of solid waste, effluent treatment, and management of air and noise emissions. 

The standard is continuously developing and evolving to become a holistic standard for assessing all elements of Environment, Social responsibility, and Governance (ESG). 

Most recently, the LWG introduced additional requirements for traceability and social auditing with the launch of Protocol 7 in 2021, in response to growing demand for additional transparency within the supply chain. 

Whether using renewable energy, treating wastewater effectively, being socially responsible, or swapping to safer chemistry, there are many actions leather manufacturers can take to reduce their impact and demonstrate responsible, more sustainable leather manufacturing. 

Leather Durability and Product Life 

Leather is one of the oldest known materials, used by humans for at least 5000 years, with the oldest leather shoe dating back to around 3,500 B.C. 

Whilst the manufacturing methods may have evolved over time, and the scale of production increased, the material and its prevalence in our everyday life remains unchanged. 

The resources needed to produce the material are only part of the story. 

The durability and lifespan of material has an important part to play. 

Good quality leather is an important material in the footwear, leather goods, furniture, and automotive industries due to its specific durable characteristics and suitability for these applications.



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