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Working together to achieve sustainability in the leather industry


On November 13 Solidaridad, Stahl and PUM and a number of Indian partners officially launched a public-private partnership to clean up the Ganges. The project endeavors to make the Kanpur Leather Cluster more sustainable by implementing new working methods and state-of-the-art technologies with a lower environmental impact. This five-year project aims to address several challenges related to overall water use and pollution from the Kanpur leather cluster, which is partly responsible for pollution loads in the Ganges. PUM's Country Coordinator Leon Husson is one of the initiators of the leather project. 

Leon Husson. “Both in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, there is still much ground to be won in the leather industry. Take for example the poor working conditions of factory personnel, environmental pollution and the use of highly toxic materials. PUM was already collaborating with Stahl in India when we heard that Solidaridad was also working to improve sustainability in the Indian leather industry. This soon led to cooperation. The leather programme was already backed by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) in the framework of the Sustainable Water Fund. By signing this five-year contract, we can now make structural work of improving a complete sector.” 

  ‘Involvement by the West is a traditionally sensitive issue’

How were your plans received in India? 

“Involvement by the West is a traditionally sensitive issue in India. The election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 changed that situation and there is now a more solid basis for the work we wish to carry out. Modi has helped India gain a more outward looking attitude. The realisation is growing that India needs to become more sustainable to be a serious player in the world economy. You must nonetheless thoroughly understand the sociocultural context. In that sense, PUM and Solidaridad are perfect partners. If you act like a schoolteacher telling a factory director that his working methods are unsafe, he quickly clams up. On the other hand, if you can explain to him that by cleaning up the work process not only will he save costs but also comply with the requirements of the Indian environmental control service, then he is happy to cooperate.” 

Are there more cultural aspects that have to be taken into account?

“Cows are sacred in India. Live slaughter is only permitted in two of the 29 Indian states. That means that any tannery is often dependent on hides that have to travel huge distances. That makes production both more complex and more expensive. You certainly have to take problems of that kind into account when initiating cooperation.” 

Leon Husson (62) who was employed at Philips in various management positions for 25 years, was often involved intensively in establishing new industrial activities, above all in Asia. He has completed five missions as a PUM expert. Since the end of 2015 he has been country coordinator for India. 

What is the added value of introducing different parties to the leather project?

“Solidaridad acts as a sort of binding agent, in close collaboration with local representatives. The NGO also takes responsibility for financing the project. Stahl as a manufacturer of chemicals for the leather industry can offer technical expertise about clean and sustainable leather processing. One of the largest clusters of tanneries in India is based in Kanpur, a large city in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The city is on the banks of the holy river Ganges, into which chemical waste and processing waste are dumped by some five hundred companies. The river is unbelievably polluted, particularly when you think that the people still wash in and drink from the river water. 

The knowledge contributed by Stahl is being used to set up a technical centre in Kanpur, where they teach the businesses how to sustainably handle their leather. PUM focuses mainly on how to better organise activities on the shop floor in the leather tanneries, and plays a key role in improving water management and waste (water) treatment.”

Can the approach be employed in other countries, too?

“Stahl is a member of the LWG (Leather Working Group) which includes companies like H&M, Nike and Adidas. The LWG operates a series of standards for the safe use of materials and better working conditions. This leather project has created a blueprint for other countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Tackling any problems in the leather industry is highly complex, and has been high on the agenda of numerous bodies, for many years. However, there are so many political and cultural factors that influence the process. The time is now ripe and there is a willingness to cooperate locally. We at PUM are extremely proud to have demonstrated that punishment and having pressure applied by environmental services are totally ineffective. The only way to make a real difference is to achieve local cooperation.”  

‘The only way to make a real difference is to achieve local cooperation’

Michael Costello, Sustainability Director at Stahl, “As a leading supplier of special process chemicals for leather, we see it as our responsibility to actively promote the safe use of chemicals. It is our absolute priority to contribute to cleaning up the river Ganges. We focus above all on promoting good practices. To help us share our knowledge, we are establishing a new centre of excellence in Kampur, where our experts will work side by side with leather tanneries and other partners.” 
Gert van der Bijl, International Programme Coordinator at Solidaridad, “Because few other NGOs are active in the leather industry, Solidaridad is keen to take the lead. Over the past few years we have seen a growing number of countries wishing to contribute to structural improvements in the leather sector, including Stahl and other chemical companies as well as other companies in the supply chain such as textile and shoe manufacturers. In this five-year leather programme, we are working together with a total of seven parties. Via the international partners PUM and Stahl, we can supply knowledge and technology. On the other hand, the Indian partners, including the Indian leather institute, are of huge importance for example in training the leather tanneries, and sharing their knowledge of supervising water quality. The experience we are acquiring within this project will be reused for other projects elsewhere, for example in Bangladesh.” 
Johan van de Gronden, CEO PUM: '“There is a lot of talk about aid & trade these days, but bringing tangible benefits to working class families while sparing the environment is hard work,” PUM CEO Johan van de Gronden says. “We are proud to work with governments, the industry, NGO’s and the local communities to help build a leather supply chain that is as vibrant as it is clean.”