Deborah Taylor, Managing Director of the Sustainable Leather Foundation, “We connect all three areas of sustainability (ES and G). So we look at environmental impacts, good and bad social impacts, and governance impact. So that fits where the regulation is at. “From this year, the EU requires companies to report not only on the financial aspects of their businesses, but also on the ESG aspects of their businesses.”
As the Magazine Leather team, we talked about “Sustainability and traceability in the leather industry” with Deborah TAYLOR, General Manager of the International ‘Sustainable Leather Foundation’.
Ms. Deborah, can we first get to know you and the Sustainable Leather Foundation? Can you explain it in full detail?
Before establishing the Sustainable Leather Foundation, I led the (LWG) Leather Working Group for 5 years. When I became head of the Leather Working Group, there was only one protocol for tanners. During my time in the Leather Working Group, I tried to get to know the sector better and talked to many brands, many tanneries, many product manufacturers and chemical companies all over the world. So I listened to them tell me what was wrong and what they needed in the Leather Working Group. I also worked hard to move the Leather Working Group to a better point and started collaborations with other industry associations. But I could only take it so far and it wasn’t going in the right direction. So, in 2020, I left the Leather Working Group and founded the Sustainable Leather Foundation to do better work that would better serve the needs of the leather industry, the global leather industry, and actually add value to the business. And we are always working to respond to additional requests.
I am also a council member of the Association of Leather Technologists and Chemists. I live there and have recently been admitted as a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Couriers in London. That’s why I do a lot of talking about the sustainability of leather, both in the UK and around the world, because I firmly believe that leather is a sustainable material, if we produce it well, there are a lot of things that can diminish the value of opposing views.
Sustainability can only be achieved by the nature of the raw material itself, and animal husbandry forms part of our natural evolution and ecosystem. We need animal husbandry to keep our planet healthy. Finally, there are many things we need to improve. There are many things we can make better. But we can do this if we work collectively as an industry, and not if we put more pressure on tanners without supporting them to make the changes they need to make. So I come from a place of firm belief that people should be empowered to improve at a pace that suits them and in a way that suits their operations. We can’t keep forcing every facility into a round hole if it’s a square peg. We need to start thinking more individually about the different geographic and regional concerns around the world regarding leather making.
The foundation itself works with what we call the purpose approach. It should be accessible, inclusive and modular. Everyone needs to be able to do this. There is no point in keeping this club of elders at the top, which not everyone can benefit from. We need the men at the top, they are visionary people. They usually have the budget and resources to make changes and invest. But most importantly, we need to bring this down to the level of everyone in the industry so we can raise the level for everyone. This is how we will protect ourselves for the future. We also need to talk about it so the media is really important because we need to be able to talk about the good work that we do and I’m already talking about that.
We wonder why leather because there are so many reasons in the industry. The purpose of asking this question is to raise awareness. Can we hear your opinion on promoting leather products regarding petroleum-based vegan alternatives and PU-based products that do not include sustainability?
Leather is inherently sustainable and does not utilize non-renewable resources. You can make Good Leather using completely renewable resources and methods. Although not everything we currently use in the leather industry is renewable, many things can be made. Petroleum-based products are problematic in many ways. We extract a neutral renewable resource from the earth. There are huge emissions in this extraction. It does not return to the environment in a healthy way after it is extracted and produced. We see microplastics in the oceans. We see it appear in the lining of babies’ stomachs. We see this everywhere. We see that landfills are full of plastic products. Even if Real Leather is treated with a plastic coating for longevity or appearance, we are creating an environmental disaster when it comes to leather, unfortunately we this can minimize.
True to its purpose, leather will last for decades. So you can have a pair of shoes and keep them for 40 years and still wear them out, or a handbag, or a leather jacket. We have proven this many times. The same cannot be said for a plastic alternative where it breaks. It doesn’t give you the same stamina and people don’t maintain it. It cracks and then you throw it away. The other problem we face is due to the rapid transformation, especially in fashion. We have a generation of people who grew up buying things just because they liked them, without considering the value or the production that went into making that product; they wear it a few times and then they don’t think about throwing it away because it was cheap to buy, cheap to make, and has long since lost its quality. Thanks to its intrinsic value, it is more cared for, worn longer and therefore has less impact on the environment.
You know, if you get the same manufacturing impacts for your plastic product as for your leather product, but your leather product lasts 40 years and your plastic product lasts five years, then the environmental impact of that production will be much greater than your leather product. The leather alternative so whether we’re talking about durability features, whether we’re talking about comfort features, whether we’re talking about features, I firmly believe that at the level that you want to talk about, leather trumps any alternative material. Are we talking about their ability to return to the world at the end of their lives? Depending on the state of production, we leave behind all kinds of plastic alternatives. The only thing we don’t do with the plastic alternative is cost. But actually, if you factor the cost per wear into the equation, we beat plastic once again because you wear and wear that leather product. Considering its usage characteristics, we cannot wash leather in the washing machine. So if we compare a leather jacket with a normal jacket, we will be better off in life.
It has more impact on a leather product than any other material option. Since it does not have a washing feature, it does not experience other problems that we associate with consumption. Natural materials have served for centuries. Where we are going in the future is that we now need to make sure that the way we produce products from these natural materials is also sustainable, and that’s what we need to do. As you know, the issue of sustainability only becomes a problem due to excessive consumption. In fact, if you think back ten years ago, we were not a consumer society like we are today, and the society had lost its connection with where its products came from. They see that they can just walk into a store and buy whatever they want, whenever they want. You can even apply this to the outside of the leather if you are considering iPhones.
Let’s take Apple as an example…
I don’t like iPhones, and one of the main reasons I don’t like them is because you have to force updates until you get to the point where you’re told to. Your phone model will no longer accept this update, so if you want to continue having the best, you should buy a new phone.
No one thinks anymore about the mining that goes into making these phones’ batteries and all the other unsustainable elements used in the manufacturing of these phones. But we consume them because we have been fed a culture that we must have the best of everything, have the latest thing, and have the latest upgrade. The situation is the same with computers, you know, when we had our first computers, you bought your software, installed your software and it was yours for life. You can’t do this anymore. You have to subscribe to an annual subscription that forces you to buy, renew and keep buying. And again you encounter the same problem; After so many years, your current software and your current computer will no longer be able to process updates. So you have to buy a new computer, and it’s all about keeping us as a consumer society.
Leather doesn’t fit that mould, because leather has always been synonymous with quality and we want to preserve that. We don’t want to lose this. We want to preserve that beautiful feeling we get from the smell and touch of a beautiful leather product, knowing that it is a part of nature and knowing where it comes from. I disagree with the need to know the farm and everything else. The consumer doesn’t want to know that the shoes are made from the food that makes up the skin of the cow, but the consumer wants to know that we know about it, that we care about it and that we pay attention to it. That’s our responsibility and that’s what we need to do in the industry.
But there is something about the whole process that is very organic and true from day one. You know we have a responsibility to care for our animals. We are talking about the vast majority of leather in cattle breeding. Consumers don’t always understand that the vast majority of the ingredient comes as a byproduct, resulting in part from vegan arguments asking us not to eat meat. There is an argument that we should reduce our meat consumption, especially in some countries there may be a bit of overconsumption, but no matter what species we work with, whether it is exotic, whether it is sheep, whether it is goat, whether it is cattle, whatever it is. We have to take care of the animal while we are alive, and if we take care of that animal while we are alive, that animal will take care of us when it dies. I do not agree with these artificial producers and companies who say that they can take cells from a live cow and produce leather from these cells in the laboratory. And then the cow can live happily. The truth is the cow will die anyway, so what do we do now? You know, are we going to use that cow and extract cells from it and use it as a commodity, and then create emissions in the laboratory and create leather in the laboratory? And by the way, when the cow dies, which it will because when that cow dies we all die, the leather is no longer useful because we made it artificially in the laboratory at great emissions cost. So now this real leather goes to landfill and creates more emissions as it decomposes. So now we are creating unnecessary double emissions. We need to start being sensitive about this issue.
Their livelihoods depend on this industry and it has continued like this for centuries. If we immediately stopped leather production in many parts of the world, we would plunge them back into poverty. For every high-tech laboratory you have in America, in the UK, there are thousands of people who would have no alternative employment if the leather industry were to close. You know, I hear it over and over again, ‘this is a polluting tannery, let’s close it’ No… it shouldn’t be closed. Let’s work with the tannery to make it better so it stops polluting. Let’s protect this livelihood and actually make it better for them. This is what we should do and this should be our concern.
We need to be smarter about what we do and the way we do it, and one of the other things we were passionate about in the organization from the beginning was connecting all the different actors in that value chain. Because for many years, even until the establishment of the foundation, inspections were only carried out in tanneries and were carried out only due to environmental concerns. They didn’t look at social concerns, they didn’t look at good governance, they didn’t look at the product producers, they didn’t look at the slaughterhouses, they didn’t look at the other elements that work. To make a good leather product. They just looked at the tannery and it was all the tannery’s fault. All the attention was on the tannery and the other guys don’t all have to jump through the same hoops.
So we were very clear that we wanted to connect good practice, and we also wanted to work with produce producers, processors, meat packers, slaughterhouses and farmers, because that’s how we connect good practice. We no longer say that we want to go into farms and inspect them. This is far beyond expertise and knowledge. But they are already being inspected. They already have to do a lot to meet regulatory requirements, they have vets who have to sign off on things. Slaughterhouses are subject to strict inspections, so if we can implement this good practice through our control panel, you can see the wheels here and connect them to the tannery.
We are now expanding the good practices and traceability of these top actors. We then extend this to product manufacturers and add that because the factories that produce the products already have good social audits, but no environmental audits or governance audits. Now let’s connect this and connect good practices. When product manufacturers send it to the brand, the brand now has a truly responsible value chain from start to finish and can connect those dots and say they used responsible people from start to finish. It sounds easy, it’s not, it’s really hard and you have to take it one step at a time when installing control panels, we started with the tanners because that’s what we knew. We already knew about the tanneries. Then we added the control panel for product manufacturers, and now we also have half a dozen product manufacturers in the control panel, and now we can connect those control panels together.
Then last year we added chemical companies. Because you can’t produce good leather without good chemistry, so it’s important that we connect that responsibility. This is a new discipline for chemical companies; They’re not used to that, they’re not used to being inspected like in the Tanneries. So this is something that evolves with them. We have been working on the machine control panel for the past year, so we are almost ready to launch the machine control panel. This year’s evolution is with meat packers. So we continue to slowly evolve to bring the entire value chain together to be able to speak well to consumers through media channels and let them know good work is being done.
Finally, no one inspects plastic manufacturers. No one is holding them accountable and saying, “Okay, tell us exactly what’s in your product, where it comes from, and what your emissions are.” This will change when the EU reports on EU regulations that will come into force this year. This will change because all companies will be held more accountable than before and we are already in a good position to be able to demonstrate good practice with the systems we have based on the sustainable leather that LWG makes. It’s not perfect, but we’re getting there.
We look at the quality of the first leather. If we want to, how will we maintain quality in matters that require expertise? If you want to make our instant messaging in life sustainable and just because we need to understand or talk we have to choose the right one and then we need to be nourished because you can face any disaster for life and you don’t do it.
As the Sustainable Leather Foundation, can you talk about your traceability (ESG) activities in the leather value chain?
Yes, traceability is our biggest problem. We connect all three areas of sustainability (ES and G). So we look at environmental impacts, good and bad social impacts, and governance impact. So that fits where the regulation is at. Starting this year, the EU requires companies to report not only on the financial aspects of their businesses, but also on the ESG aspects of their businesses. They want to know that companies are responsible. So, there are three modules in our dashboard, one environmental, one social and one governance, and each of these modules has separate informative topics. Many of the environmental concerns are things that tanneries have been thinking about for years. However, as I mentioned before, the social element is very new, so some thought is required. We are working on the issue I mentioned as our target approach. We work in a modular way to be accessible to everyone. So you don’t need to be able to do everything at once.
And on the modular panel, we have a really simple traffic light system, and here you can see some gray sections above the wheels. If it is gray, it means the work has not started yet. Orange means the job is in progress but not yet certified. It means it doesn’t have an audit yet and it doesn’t have a third-party certification. Green means it has been certified and inspected by a third reliable company. If it’s red, it’s now out of standard. Failure is something quite different from a work in progress. Failure means the company has not fulfilled its legal obligations, while if it is a work in progress it means it is not there yet. So they may not meet the standard, but they are not disrupting anything legally. So there’s a big distinction.
This is how we created this system. Eliminating the fear of auditing companies because companies don’t need to do everything at once. We don’t say that if you can’t be green in everything, you will fail the audit, we say that we do our best and give you a certificate for the things you do well. We then give you advice notes and corrective actions for things you are still working on or need to start working on. It therefore provides a truly positive improvement program for organizations.
The scary audit thing you have to go through and you need to find a really expensive consultant to help you pass that audit. It’s about doing the work yourself. It’s really about understanding what is needed. We do this through our tools; so we have standards and criteria for each part of each wheel.
We have a standard and a criterion that tells people what the expectation is, what they should have, and what we will do when it comes to auditing accordingly. So companies, if they don’t have something, can do it themselves. We have guidance notes and we have templates. So if someone has never done a risk assessment before, for example, we give them a risk assessment template that gives them the key areas to consider and helps them think through it. We say now we can do it yourself.
We then provide each company with a QR code, and since this QR code is dynamic, it is a living QR code. If you do something tomorrow, even if that QR code has been on a lever wrapper for a year. If someone clicks the QR code they will get your latest wheels. It’s not what happened a year ago when you put it there, it’s where you are today. That’s why we provide this ongoing lifestyle of putting your best foot forward to best represent your ESG progress on a daily basis. They keep us in touch when we work with our companies. So, as soon as they get a new certificate, they send it to us and say: For example, when they tell us, ‘We have received our updated Leather Working Group certificate, or we have received our updated ISO 14001 certificate,’ we can say to them, ‘Please update it inwards and we will update it for you.’ All we need to see to make this happen is the report, because without the report we can’t be sure that there are no corrective actions or recommendations that will make the difference between something going green or staying orange. So, if we are going to give equivalence to someone else’s board, we need to see the A report so that we can see on what basis we made this determination.
All of this combined means we offer something that works for everyone; It works to help the industry evolve, it works to help brands demonstrate good practice throughout their supply chains, and it helps consumers because everyone can put it forward. By adding the QR code on point-of-sale materials in a store, consumers can understand that the product is a reliable product when they can trust the Sustainable Leather Foundation logo.
Because we are transparent, we show the current picture. We’re not trying to claim that everyone is perfect. We’re not trying to claim that everyone is completely green. We can show them where they are at any point along their journey. Of course, forward support is important. This is an important part of what we do.
Does the Sustainable Leather Foundation participate in international fairs? Can you talk about the possibilities of explaining the activities of the foundation?
Yes, we tried and are trying to reach as many people as possible. I was hoping to come to the fair in Turkey a few months ago, but I couldn’t. That’s why I promise myself that this will be on the agenda this year. But we try to go to every region as much as we can, hold workshops, attend fairs, and talk to as many people as possible. We really want to open this up and talk about certification.
Certification is really important. Certification is crucial as you move forward because it allows you to meet due diligence demands from brands. But many people still misunderstand certification and I think we need to talk about it and be out there through events, fairs and workshops. So people understand that certification doesn’t necessarily have to be difficult. and they can be trusted. I know you have problems with this. Auditing is full of subjectivity and problems, but due diligence is our best bet right now. What we need to do as an industry is to make sure we do it well. So yes, we like to go to fairs and talk to people whenever possible.
What would you like to say about the technology and future of the industry we live in in the age of artificial intelligence?
The Artificial Intelligence technology era has a big role to play in the future of the leather industry. I believe we have already shown that investments in good technology and research and development pay off. We see this at the tannery level. We see that investment needs to continue at the product level. We need chemists, we need technologists. We need these guys to think about how we can improve our current processes and even get the best out of leather. If you can automate it and use it, what we shouldn’t do is we shouldn’t use technology to the detriment of people.
We need to protect livelihoods and concerns about AI. We take craftsmanship out of leatherworking, so can you apply this to anything in life? The more we rely on AI unless we use our own intelligence, pretty soon we won’t have experts on anything you know, everyone will be generalists and they won’t be very good at it because they never really will be. They apply their own brains to this.
So we need to be really careful about the extent to which we adopt these technologies. You know, now we can see pictures of celebrities on the internet and it’s not actually them. They’re not actually there, but AI has created these images and made them look completely different from reality. That’s why we need to be very careful. However, when we think about tanning technology, when we think about types of tanning, we really need here to rely on the best knowledge and science that we have and make it as good as possible. It’s as sustainable as possible because that’s the key to sustainability.
Do you have academic studies on qualified personnel for international sector employees?
Yes…yes there is. We provide informal training designed to support development for qualified people. We do not do any professional qualifications. But we work with educational institutions and have close ties because we believe in them. A highly skilled workforce will deliver better results, but we do not do any formal qualifications.
Finally, what would you like to say to people who have devoted themselves to the profession?
This is very interesting because the leather industry is still seen as an old industry and we need to encourage new people. We need to encourage young people and enthusiastic people who want to get involved and help leverage leverage into the future. It’s a really tough job, you know. The reputation of leather is that it is a dirty and old industry and it is not. Not very sexy, let’s put it out there…. Of course, this is not very interesting for young people, they want more. But I think it’s our job to make it interesting and exciting for every young person considering leather as an industry choice, and there’s a lot to praise the for industry.
I would say find those people, talk to them, point them to the future, learn from the old masters, learn that we have a lot of aging experts who have a lot of knowledge and a lot of enthusiasm for this industry and there are people to pass on that knowledge. So find a mentor for every young person, find someone you know is an expert in your field and reach out to them.
Because 99.9 percent of people in this industry want to show that they want to help others and want to work with other people. If a young person wrote me an email and said I wanted to join. I would help them. I think 99 percent of people in this industry would do the same thing, and people are definitely helping me.
When I first started the Leather Working Group, I was completely new to the leather industry. I didn’t know anything about it except that I liked nice leather bags. In every tannery I entered, in every educational institution I entered, in every chemical company I entered, people opened their doors to me and told me things. They never made me feel stupid for not knowing something, and without the generosity of all these people and all these companies on day one, I wouldn’t be able to do the work I’m doing there now.
They showed me the ropes, and it was them showing me the ropes that sparked my passion for the industry. For someone relatively new to the industry, I became passionate very quickly, and I can say that 100 percent of that is down to the people I work with. They helped me understand what leather is all about. So for any young person entering this industry, find good people to learn from and they will want to show you. They will want you to succeed and will want to help you.
Ms. Deborah TAYLOR, thank you very much for sparing your time for this online interview for Magazine Leather publishing and sharing your valuable information.