Specifications: sustainability or absurdity?A progress report on the various and diverse initiatives aimed at standardising the specifications that are becoming increasingly more stringent, multiform and harder to meet
“Sustainability is a word that is used more and more in the fashion value chain. On the one hand, there is a constant evolution in global regulations, and on the other hand, there is increasing pressure on the market. In this context, leather retailers and final manufacturers have rapidly developed and spread across the market a diverse set of contractual requirements to be transferred upstream of their production chains, as well as numerous audit procedures aimed at checking their implementation and progress. This “command and control” approach has proven to be effective in the initial stages of the process. However, the continuing proliferation of requirements, together with the complexity of the control measures at a global level, are creating an overwhelming increase in non-productive costs along the production chains and a parallel decline in the effectiveness of the strategies and tools proposed.” This is how the “Disrupting Sustainability” document prepared by UNIC and ICEC begins. It perfectly sums up the topic of specifications that ideally should provide an excellent tool to achieve sustainability goals, but that in everyday practice often translates into absurd demands, which are not only difficult to meet, but also useless and physically impossible to achieve.
To this is added difficult objectives, which were outlined in detail during the discussion panel on “La pelle che è, la pelle che vuoi, la prossimapelle che sarà” held last May during the UNPAC – National Association of Italian Leather Chemicals Manufacturers, event Prossimapelle.
Problems that most certainly are linked to the world of Chemicals and Leather, but that in many respects also reflect the problems encountered by the entire footwear production chain.
- Documentary problems originating from compliant safety datasheets and technical specifications, but limited to compulsory information, or from compliant declarations of raw material suppliers, that nevertheless are unhelpful.
- Analytical problems relating to the tremendous growth in the number of regulated and permitted substances included in the list of specifications, and the lack of official or standardised methods to test them. It is also implausible to analyse all the product batches for all undesired substances, and difficult to identify which products or raw materials contain contaminants, when there is no obligation to make a declaration to this effect.
- Moreover, the specifications should address issues relating to the physiological contamination of materials during the production process (impurities).
- There are also critical issues relating to the drafting of documents. For example, those prepared by chemical companies will nevertheless have to be checked in the context of the relevant application, based on the production process and on the nature of the product used. In fact, there is not enough documentary evidence to ensure compliance with the required limits for hides because the result not only depends on the properties and characteristics of the chemical product, but also on the actual nature of the leather and on the numerous treatments applied to it, which cannot rule out the presence or the formation of contaminating substances.
In short, numerous critical issues still need to be addressed regarding specifications. Issues that however do not stop the progress towards sustainability undertaken by many major brands. One of the latest developments is the first Sustainability Report prepared by Salvatore Ferragamo based on the guidelines of the Global Reporting Initiative GRI – G4, which focuses on people, Made in Italy, products and relationships with workers, the territory, culture, and environment. Ferruccio Ferragamo believes that “the enrichment of our people and the area in which we operate is a fundamental requirement, as is the search for sustainable and alternative materials, increase in the use of energy from renewable sources and the design and implementation of more sustainable mobility/logistics solutions and architecture such as the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum, the first green company museum in Italy.”
The Kering Group (Gucci, Stella McCartney and Bottega Veneta) echoes these initiatives, and together with François-Henri Pinault have made it known that they want “to define a sustainable future for luxury through strategies that extend throughout the entire chain, to all suppliers and that therefore focus on sustainability right from the very beginning of the creative process.” Kering has therefore set some strategic goals to be achieved by 2025, following the guidelines of the Sustainable Development Goals (drafted by the United Nations) which addresses three main themes: attention to the Planet (processes and choices of sustainable raw materials), collaboration with people (gender equality at all levels), new business models (inspired by young leaders).
Prada is also committed to sustainability. Patrizio Bertelli and Miuccia Prada have signed an agreement with Yale University and the Politecnico of Milan to organise “Shaping a creative future”, a summit dedicated to discussing how to develop new connections between sustainability and innovation and how to make design an integral part of a sustainable future.
As we can clearly see, while sustainability is a central theme for everyone, we are still far from embarking on a common path that can be taken by the entire fashion industry.
This is confirmed by Gianni Russo, president of UNIC, the Tanners’ Association:
Tanning is the central link of the chain, the one that plays the most delicate role. Most of the critical issues stem from it. The dialogue between the various stakeholders is intense, they work in close contact with each other, but the problems are never completely resolved. Every day we are faced with the request to subscribe to ethical, social and environmental codes, as well as specifications that are difficult to meet; we sign them, certain and proud of our tradition, of our civic consciousness and intellectual transparency.
I ask myself if the time has come to establish a relationship of greater reciprocity with the various upstream and downstream players? This would represent a giant step forward towards a more balanced chain. Because an ‘unbalanced’ chain has no future.
This point is also discussed by the Round Table set up by the National Chamber of Italian Fashion, in collaboration with SMI, Federchimica and the UNIC, which brings together the most important brands in Italy, and which, in 2016 produced the first results of the “Guidelines on Eco-toxicological requirements for clothing, leather goods, footwear and accessories”.
“The Round Table is progressing well and, above all, remains very concrete – says Mauro Rossetti, director of the Textiles and Health Association, technical coordinator of the project – We are working on the guidelines for chemical compounds and industrial waste (to be presented in autumn) and designing the third part of the research that focuses on good manufacturing practices.”
What kind of results is this great concertation of work bringing? “As far as the textile industry is concerned (we have only recently started working with the leather industry), more than 100 companies from 7 different Italian regions have made their production traceable and transparent and this allows them to fully meet the specifications. The goal of the round table is to align the entire fashion segment to a single set of shared specifications. The prerequisite, of course, is to draw up guidelines that are based on irreprehensible technical and scientific findings.”
What major critical issues need to be addressed to achieve this goal? “The complexity of the matter and of the international market, the fragmentation of the initiatives and the definition of standardised analytical methods.”
Can we be optimistic? “I would say yes, because this Italian initiative has attracted the attention of the international fashion world. On 28 March 2017, in fact, the first International Round Table on Sustainability was held in Milan, which essentially discussed what Italy is doing. This means we are on the right path.”