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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.”
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’