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Changing the leather industry towards more sustainability

Artikel vom 10.09.2020

The project "More sustainable chemistry in the leather supply chains" enters into a new phase. Time to review the achievements thus far. An interview with Dr. Julian Schenten, Darmstadt University of Applied Science.

The quest for a more sustainable leather production

In 2018, the Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences started the project “system innovation for sustainable development (s:ne)”, which aims to foster the university’s transfer activities. The project seeks to specifically further ideas, which would contribute to the fulfillment of the sustainable development goals. The Schader-Foundation, among other, is a partner in the project.

In one thematic area of project, the team, in cooperation with many industry actors, takes on the challenge of “more sustainable chemistry in the leather supply chains”. As this project enters into a new phase, it is time to take stock, review the achievements and look to the future. To do so, we talked with Dr. Julian Schenten, head of the project area.


Q: Why did you decide to focus on “more sustainable chemistry in the leather supply chains”? Why is it an area, which necessitates change?

A: Awareness about chemicals in products and processes and their potentially negative impact is increasing among consumers as well as legislators. Furthermore, the notion of sustainable development is getting more and more important. Industries are increasingly realising that they have to reply to these societal needs. This issue is especially relevant to the leather industry, as the production of leather entails many chemical inputs. While not representative of the whole industry, images about horrible conditions in some tanneries in south Asia are well known by the public. Supply chains are, however, complex and stretched globally, which makes effective control mechanisms a big challenge to implement. In the scope of our project, we work on innovative solutions, together with all the stakeholders involved, in order to make the leather production processes more sustainable.


Q: In which way are you supporting the leather industry towards a more sustainable process, especially with regards to chemical management?

A: We gladly acknowledge the industry’s willingness to improve its chemical management as it aligns quite well with the Darmstadt University of Applied Science’s transfer strategy, aiming to support the UN’s sustainable development goal 12: sustainable production and consumption.

Increasing the control over chemicals management in the mass markets, which are highly price driven and opaque, requires a radical paradigm shift. Our team is aiming to support the industry in this transition process. All players along the supply chains – notably chemical suppliers, leather industry, brands as well as retail – need to work together. As an University of Applied Sciences, we are able to be impartial and bring together the different, sometimes contradictory positions of different stakeholders, i.e. we are moderating the process by providing appropriate formats. At the same time, our interdisciplinary team consists i.a. of chemists, designers, lawyers, and economists that bring in expertise in various fields and actively support the leather sector in finding innovative solutions.


Q: We are now roughly at the halfway point of the project. What happened thus far?
A: One important milestone was the scenario process, in which a committed group of stakeholders cooperated with us. Actors along the supply chain, as well as NGOs and researchers took part in the process. It allowed the actors to develop a common understanding of the challenges the sector is facing, while at the same time creating a common vision of where they want to be in the year 2035 as an industry. The result was a scenario story, providing a vision for a more sustainable leather chemistry, to which the actors committed themselves. Afterwards, we held a workshop for the actors to develop implementation strategies. To identify the various leverage points, we created a “Theory of Change” for our project, which illustrates how the achievement of various short, mid to long-term milestones will contribute to the intended long-term vision for the industry. The first four subprojects, launched at the end of June, are addressing different thematic areas, designed to trigger many of those intended milestones.


Q: Could you describe these four subprojects in more detail? How are they interconnected with each other?

A: The subprojects are addressing topics such as harmonisation of standards for a “more sustainable” leather chemistry, chemical and process innovation, IT Tools and governance for traceability of chemicals along the supply chains, as well as leather design guidelines for sustainable development. The themes addressed in the projects, i.e. technical and inter-organisational innovation, and governance frameworks providing normative orientation, are major pillars of the stakeholder’s common vision. Hence, these four components rely on each other, all of them are equally needed in order to create more sustainable supply chains.


Q: What do you count as the main achievement thus far?

A: It is a huge success to have gathered key players of the leather sector, who are willing to work together for the same vision heading towards transition. In the subprojects, stakeholders will work hand in hand with researchers to develop strategies to tackle the challenges. However, the intended transition of the leather supply chain will take some time. Additional funding opportunities will have to be considered as this project is currently only funded through 2022.


Q: Which stakeholders are participating in the project and who is eligible for participation?

A: All representatives from the leather industry and related sectors, as well as from NGOs, consulting, administration and science can participate in the subprojects, no matter from where they are coming. As of today, major players from virtually all stages of the supply chain as well as different geographical areas are represented in the working groups, which will have their first workshops in early October. If you're interested in participation, please contact the project here.



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