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India Goes Green: Leather industry

vegan leather

India is the second-largest producer, consumer of footwear and exporter of leather garments, the third-largest saddlery and harness, and the fourth largest leather goods exporter worldwide. The leather and footwear sector contributes about 2 per cent to India’s overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employs approximately 4.42 Mn workers making the sector one of the top employment generators in the country. India’s footwear market is estimated to reach $ 15.5 Billion (Bn) by 2022, from $ 10.6 Bn in 2019. It is expected to grow at 11 per cent over the next five years. The industry is known for its high export earnings and is amongst the prime foreign exchange-earners. According to the Council for Leather Exports (CLE), the export of footwear, leather, and leather goods from India was $ 3.68 Bn during 2020-21.

India’s economic growth and demographic profile make it a compelling opportunity for global footwear brands and manufacturers to produce and sell in India, as well those planning on expansion. The robust footwear ecosystem is currently driven by a large domestic market with higher disposable incomes and a growing labour force. India has one of the most liberal investment policies for foreign investments in the leather and footwear sector with 100 per cent foreign direct investment (FDI) allowed through the automatic route. 

The abundance of raw materials in the country has bestowed the sector. Considering the global numbers, India is supplemented with 20 per cent of world cattle and buffalos and 11 per cent of the goat and sheep population. Skilled labor pool, rising industry conformity to global environmental measures, ingenious technology, and the committed upholding of the allied trades serve as assets to the industry. The industry is highly employment intensive providing jobs to people mainly from the significantly vulnerable sections of the community. With about 30 percent of the share, the industry employs women in leather goods production. 

Taking the example of the Kanpur Unnao leather cluster which is globally recognized for footwear, saddlery, and other leather commodities, has been a major source of polluting water bodies. While it is an essential industry in Uttar Pradesh, nearing 350 tanneries, with 100,000 homes relying on it for their living, it is the Ganga River Basin is being polluted by the tanneries, and thousands of homes use the water for irrigation and washing, impacting their well-being and health. the process of manufacturing leather is still energy and resource intensive. It demands environmentally toxic chemicals and produces a lot of sludge waste during processing. The chemicals used to tan leather can be toxic, both to humans and the environment. This gives leather manufacturing and processing, a higher environmental impact.

However, this dismal picture is set for a major change as India goes green. Promoting sustainability in leather production, many medium-scale industries in the Kanpur Unnao region are now the front runners in incorporating ethical and responsible practices. To recycle limewater from leather production, they are researching and developing various processes and mechanics that will recirculate almost all the water used. They aim at a zero-liquid waste process by applying electro-oxidation treatment. The sector is improving and introducing eco-friendly technologies such as salt-free tanning, electro-oxidation-based zero waste discharge, physio-remediation pilot for wastewater, sulfide enzyme-based unhairing, occupational health, and safety interventions to reduce the pollution lead and water consumption of tanneries.

Furthering this initiative of sustainability in leather and footwear sector, is the rise of vegan leather, the humane and cruelty-free alternative to traditional animal leather. It's known by various names, such as artificial leather, faux leather, and synthetic leather. It is a material that simulates leather and is made from artificial or plant products. Vegan leather is relatively a more sustainable choice, given that the leather and tanning sector is one of the most polluting industries globally. Various materials such as cork fabric, cannabis, waste flowers from the temple are alternative materials for artificial leather. Major companies like Tesla and Ferrari are developing vegan-friendly automotive interiors as well. The physical and functional properties of vegan leather are almost at par with that of traditional leather. As consumers become more concerned about sustainability, the sector will be driven to innovate more eco-friendly types of vegan leather alternatives, which for now tend to be plastic-based products that have a shorter lifespan than traditional animal-based leather.

The government has implemented the Indian Leather Development Program (ILDP) during the 12-plan period aiming at the comprehensive development of the leather sector. The government is presumably to continue the incentive scheme for the industry, Indian Footwear, Leather & Accessories Development Program (IFLADP) till 2025-26 with an outlay of $ 229 million to facilitate manufacturing, job creation, and exports. A central sector scheme, ILDP, is arranged in six sub-schemes. It aims to reduce the skill gaps and provide the futuristic demand of forthcoming technology upgrades, mega leather clusters, and Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs). It has brought organized slaughter processes, an assemblage of animal skins, and environmentally friendly conservancy systems. The six sub-schemes are:

1.    Integrated Development of Leather Sector: It will lead to output gains, improve efficiency, design, advancement, and cost-cutting by enabling the industry to advance and reassure entrepreneurs to expand and set up new units in the areas such as tanneries, leather garments, accessories, and goods, and footwear manufacturing units.

2.    Human Resource Development: Indian brands will be bolstered by building up the operator's competence to produce technically improved products for the buyers. 

3.    Support to Artisan: To assure better return to the artisans, ethnic products will be strategically placed in the interdependent market, and design and product development will improve the demand in the market.

4.    Leather Technology, Innovation and Environmental Issues: Environmental concerns are being raised at the tanning activities of the industry. These issues are raising several questions and are coming under severe scrutiny. Thus, considerable measures need to be taken to align with norms.

5.    Mega Leather Cluster: These mega clusters support the entrepreneurs in assembling world-class units with modern infrastructure, current technology, training, and human development inputs. The goal is to integrate the production that provides to the business requirements of the home market and exports and develop world-class infrastructure. 

6.    Establishment of Institutional facilities: It proposes to add infrastructure by building two new Footwear Design and Development Institute (FDDI) campuses to meet the increasing demand of the leather industry. 

The Government of India's Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change has also enacted a scheme on branding and forged 'Ecomark' for leather and leather products. To be qualified for the Ecomark, general environmental considerations like air and water pollution; and leather products must meet definite requirements. Unlike the other products covered by the scheme, leather products are not mandated to get an Indian Standards Institution (ISI) mark from the Bureau of Indian Standards.

The leather industry is focused on designing a leather value chain that is socially and environmentally sustainable. Following are the UN Sustainable Development Goals that guide in making the highest impact.

•    Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being - The industry should administer an environmental review code to evaluate the leather manufacturers' facilities. The code should examine the disposal, usage, and storage of likely dangerous chemicals. It should investigate the arrangement and use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in tanneries. The detector installation for potentially hazardous gases and the degree of housekeeping in a tannery, including distinctly marked access routes, storage spaces, should be examined.

•    Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation - The leather industry is utilizing and discharging large volumes of water. This goal can be attained by reducing pollution, curtailing the discharge of hazardous chemicals, accelerating water recycling, safe reuse of water, and reducing water consumption. 

•    Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth - Leather is produced globally, in nations with diverse economic and societal circumstances. The leather industry can engage large amounts of people and thus increase countries' welfare and all those concerned. This industry should be backed by introducing ingenious technologies and actions to cater modest work environment and an exceptional social environment. Training and education to work safely with chemicals is an indispensable part of this advancement.

•    Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production - Tanneries are encouraged to thoroughly regulate their chemical, waste, and energy usage to reduce their environmental impact, conclusively reducing pollution or contamination of air, water, and soil. The industry's first concern should be to assure the leather is produced and consumed as responsibly and efficiently as possible, whether by endorsing efficient water treatment, reducing energy consumption, minimizing the potential risks of using dangerous chemicals, or encouraging traceability at every production stage. 

•    Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals - Positive impact can be shaped only through collaborations. Leather industry corporations are expediting the process of creating a socially and environmentally sustainable leather value chain. 

This blog has been co-authored by Mishika Nayyar and Bhakti Jain.