The Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. The government is keen to make it cleaner. But where to start? How about with one of its main polluters? The leather industry! But how? The FDW partners in India think they have the answer: making clean production profitable. This is their story.
Solidaridad had no experience in the leather industry until the Dutch Embassy in India asked if it could help make the Ganges cleaner. Around 400 leather tanneries in the Kanpur-Unnao region (North India) are a good place to start! It is difficult to motivate change in the leather industry due to the diverse company sizes, the sometimes-limited investment opportunities, and the conventional way of thinking.
"The project formally started in 2017," says Tatheer Zaidi from Solidaridad. "We formed a strong consortium with Stahl, the leading supplier of chemicals globally, the technical experts from PUM Netherlands, and a consultancy firm for small businesses in developing countries. Then we got some tannery associations on board. We also work with India's Central Leather Research Institute and the regional government. With this consortium, we started analysing the entire chain. We aimed to understand where we could reduce pollution and which production processes we could optimise."
A process that requires less water
The leather for your shoes or bags has gone through a long process. It involves lots of chemicals and organic compounds. If these get into the water untreated, they harm the environment. Tanning processes also use large quantities of water and produce large amounts of pollutants. The Indian government has wanted to change this for decades but has not really gotten far. That is starting to change.
The consortium's analysis provided several possible changes in the leather processing chain. "We designed a simple desalting machine which reduces the salt use by 30-35%," says Zaidi. The investment? Only 1,200 euros. "For the fleshing process, which removes everything from the hide, we installed a process to reduce water consumption by 50%. The cost? 150 euros!" The consortium also ensured that the tanners could reuse the released sludge. The cost? Nothing! This is now a revenue stream. Even the smallest tanners were enthusiastic about this idea!
The consortium received the prestigious global award EEF Global Industrial Water Project of 2021 on 22 August 2021. It also recently received the Water Sustainability Award (2021-2022) for its work on the occasion of World Water Day on 22 March 2022.
An economic choice
The machines and changes require an investment, but tanneries recover the costs within 3-6 months. After the investment, the tanneries can keep their costs down. Enforcement by regulators has not really addressed the problem. Yet, in a short time, the consortium has motivated the industry to change by demonstrating how being responsible is profitable. Combining both enforcement while demonstrating profitable change is the most effective approach. The consortium received extra support during the project period, too. The Indian government established stricter laws and regulations for tanneries and enforced them.
"We started with a small group of 10 tanneries and slowly expanded. Now, we work with 135 companies and are still expanding," says Zaidi. The government closed some of the tanneries because they were polluting too much. Once these companies started using improved practices that the consortium introduced, the government allowed them to re-open.
Sustainability does not harm your business
To further innovate and replicate the achieved improvements, Stahl has built and commissioned a Center of Excellence for the tanneries in Kanpur. There, they train tanners in the leather industry to work cleaner. The company notices the manufacturers themselves are getting excited, too. "I think the results will sustain," says Michael Costello from Stahl. He does not want to claim that this intervention alone will clean the Ganges River, but it does set an example. "Our experience will be useful for other projects. We have learnt a lot about how difficult it can be to set a change in motion. But we have experienced that one can make changes quickly with the right incentives in place. A focus on sustainability also does not harm your business. It gives back so much as it makes you more attractive as a valuable partner and producer in the long run."
The National Mission for Clean Ganges, initiated by the Indian government, has been instrumental throughout this journey. It provided the required guidance and support, and the project became a model project for others. Other leather-producing clusters in Kolkata and Tamil Nadu, India, have already replicated the FDW Kanpur Leather project experiences. Solidaridad and its consortium partners are serious actors contributing toward sectoral transformation with access to around 80% of the leather sector. They now want to change other polluting sectors, such as the dying and bleaching process in the textile industry.
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