You can’t make good shoes without good-quality leather. And that has long posed an ethical issue for Timberland. Namely, as an environmentally progressive firm, what can we do to reduce the environmental impacts required by the tanning process?
We’re not the only ones to have asked that question. Several brands have been conducting audits over the years—bringing confusion and even conflicting standards to the tanneries. In April 2005, Timberland and a number of other brands formed a coalition called the Leather Working Group (LWG), an organization with the objective of developing and maintaining a protocol that assesses the compliance and environmental performance of tanners, and promoting sustainable and appropriate environmental business practices within the leather industry.
“Initially, there was pushback from the tanneries, who said, ‘We don’t need another audit’” reveals Rick LaTouch, Senior Manager of Leather Development at Timberland. However, once tanneries realized the benefit of creating alignment on environmental issues the improvement was exponential. LWG environmental audits are conducted 18 months apart, and the results between first and subsequent audits for all participating tanneries were overall reductions of 15 to 20 percent in water and energy use. Tanneries have also seen improvements in air emissions, water effluent quality, waste, and restricted substance handling.
LWG audited tanneries were soon setting the standard for environmental performance in the footwear leather industry. Two tanneries with whom Timberland does business illustrate the effectiveness of the LWG.
PrimeAsia Tanning was among the tannery and footwear brands that founded the LWG. Located in China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, PrimeAsia is a primary leather provider to Timberland’s global footwear supply chain.
“The LWG provides a collaborative environment where all tanneries are held to high environmental standards within the leather industry,” says Steve Savino, vice president of sales and marketing for PrimeAsia. “We expected that LWG audits would help us focus on documenting our energy usage, provide a benchmark for comparison against other audited tanneries, and help us identify opportunities for decreasing our energy and water usage.”
Has the LWG succeeded in achieving this goal? According to Savino, PrimeAsia’s involvement in LWG has resulted in substantial water and energy savings. For example, PrimeAsia Vietnam has implemented a solar farm to provide the tannery with its hot-water needs for manufacturing, and also upgraded the efficiency of its steam boilers. These achievements helped the tannery achieve Gold status according to its last LWG audit. PrimeAsia’s China and Taiwan facilities purchase steam from a nearby industry, which would otherwise be unused – contributing to those tanneries’ Gold and Silver status (respectively). “We also went from no water recycling to a corporate average of approximately 40% of water recycled within our facilities,” Savino reports. “PrimeAsia’s environmental improvement projects have resulted in production efficiencies and financial benefits.”
ISA Tan Tec
Located in China and Vietnam, ISA Tan Tec is another primary source of leather for Timberland® footwear. In 2006, Tan Tec organized a coalition of Foreign Tanners in China (FTC), inviting other tanneries to join them for roundtable discussions and other projects aimed at raising awareness of the need for environmental reform within the industry. As a result, the collaboration proposed by the LWG made sense. “Our participation in the LWG was a natural consequence and development of the FTC and enabled us to move from a purely Chinese perspective to a global set of standards,” says Fanny Lan, Tan Tec’s EHS manager and assistant to the president in Guangzhou, China.
Between 2005 and 2010, Tan Tec reduced water consumption by 45.4%—a reduction that has resulted in savings not only in consumption, but also in treatment and discharge costs. “Despite ever-increasing costs in China, we have been able to decrease our water treatment cost by around 10%,” Lan says.
Another example is the reduction in power consumption. By investing in energy-saving equipment, such as new retanning drums that operate at one-third the speed of conventional drums, Guangzhou Tan Tec has reduced power consumption by 38% during that same time period. According to Lan, “Guangzhou Tan Tec has managed to keep the power cost on the same levels as in 2005, a cost that would have been almost doubled in 2010 had we not focused heavily on energy-reduction programs.”
As a result of its commitment to the LWG, Timberland has set a target to source leather only from tanneries that are rated silver or higher—not an easy task for the factories in question. “Obtaining a medal isn’t easy,” LaTouch points out. “The protocol is dynamic and is regularly updated to ensure that it is challenging but achievable. Seldom does a tannery get audited the same way twice. The tanners understand that it’s good for the industry – and the planet.”
Lan agrees. “Timberland today is the only brand who officially sets targets for tanneries’ environmental performance based on a minimum medal criterion. Guangzhou Tan Tec underwent the first LWG audit in 2007 and had prepared for this. The result was a silver medal, but further audits have increased our LWG rating to gold, which is something we are proud of,” she says, adding, “Daily decisions are taken with the eye to keep this status.”