Water & Leather
By Sarah Swenson 6 June, 2013
Sarah Swenson, Environmental Manager for PrimeAsia tells us why water is so important to leather
PrimeAsia manufactures high quality lifestyle and sports inspired leathers for global branded footwear, apparel and leather goods market with an annual production capacity of around 128 million sqft of leather. Its manufacturing site in China produces 5.5million sqft of leather per month. As water is a necessary resource for the creation of leather, PrimeAsia strives to reduce water use and over the past five years has reduced fresh water intake by 21.5%. In 2012, it set further ambitious targets to reduce energy, water, and waste reduction by 30%.
In addition to setting these internal targets that relate to direct water usage, PrimeAsia is also collaborating with their suppliers to reduce water usage throughout the supply chain. PrimeAsia’ actions in this area have resulted in industry wide recognition for their leadership in sustainability: Global Tannery of the Year in 2013, Top Nike MSI Supplier, Chinese Leather Association Ecological Leather Title, Guangdong Province Clean Production Enterprise, and a Forest Footprint Disclosure Project Sector Leader. Sarah Swenson, Environmental Manager for PrimeAsia tells us why water is so important to leather.
Water is essential to leather production. Manufacturing leather involves a system of water-based processes, utilizing water as the transport medium and diluent for the chemicals required, to create the durable and fashionable material that has been utilized by humankind for centuries.
Leather’s Water Footprint
The importance of sustainability and in particular water usage is increasingly being recognized and included as part of the assessment undertaken during many third party and customer audits. PrimeAsia measures the water, carbon, chemical, and manpower usage footprints of its leather production, with third party verification of all data by SGS and Taiwan Plastics Industry Development Center.
Water footprint calculations start with the lifecycle of the steer/cow, with PrimeAsia taking responsibility for 5% of the steer/cow’s life-cycle water consumption in accordance with The Water Footprint Assessment Manual: 2011. PrimeAsia’s water footprint ends at the door of their customer’s factories. In total PrimeAsia’ water footprint is approximately 3.3 litres per square foot of leather. Direct water usage is only 1% of this total, and indirect water usage due to raw materials represents 99% of the total.
Breaking down the 3.3 litres of water consumed during the lifecycle per square foot of leather: 91% is consumed during the life of the steer/cow, 5% is consumed in the beamhouse (raw hide processing plant), and 3% is consumed during the manufacture of input chemicals. PrimeAsia is only directly responsible for 1% of the leather’s water usage
Removing the water usage attributed to the lifecycle of the animal significantly changes the distribution. Water utilization is then: 56% is consumed within the beamhouse processes, 33% during the manufacturing of input chemicals and 11% used directly within PrimeAsia’ tanneries.
Exposure to cattle: suppliers’ water risk
Natural leather is made from an animal hide/skin. PrimeAsia’ leather is made using the hide of a steer/cow raised in The USA, Brazil, and Australia. These cattle are raised solely to supply the demand for beef, so it can be argued that leather is a by-product of the beef industry. Without the meat industry there would be no leather industry: both the beef and leather industry depend on healthy cattle herds with access to drinking water.
Droughts are occurring around the globe. In regions experiencing drought, farmers often decrease the size of their cattle herds, directly impacting hide supply and this has a dramatic and very real impact on PrimeAsia’ business. As a result PrimeAsia understands the risk associated with decreasing water supplies available for cattle herds and seeks to support sustainable cattle production.
“Within the supply chain, PrimeAsia seeks to reduce the risk of future global water shortages by measuring, collaborating and acting on solutions both internally and amongst stakeholders.”
Jon Clark, CEO, PrimeAsia
In addition to directly communicating with suppliers concerning water issues PrimeAsia participates in an environmental leather group, The Leather Working Group (LWG). The LWG is a multi-stake holder environmental group for the leather industry. Members include brands, manufacturers, suppliers and NGOs. The LWG seeks to promote sustainable environmental business practices within the leather industry through the use of an auditing protocol to assess the environmental performance, including water usage, of participating tanners and beamhouses.
Both of PrimeAsia’s tanneries are rated Gold, the highest level of environmental performance. The majority >95% of PrimeAsia’s wet blue suppliers are also rated Gold, with all of PrimeAsia’ wet blue (tanned cattle hides) being purchased from Leather Working Group audited beamhouses. In 2012, PrimeAsia instituted a Preferable Procurement Policy. The policy works to ensure input materials are purchased from suppliers who understand water risk and are also reducing the amount of water necessary to produce their products.
PrimeAsia’s water reduction commitment
PrimeAsia strictly manages water usage onsite at its facilities, PrimeAsia China (PAC) located in Dongguan, China and PrimeAsia Vietnam (PAV) located outside Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Through control, recycling and re-use direct water usage is minimized. A Fenton wastewater treatment unit installed several years ago and a BioNet membrane water recycling system installed in December 2012 enables PrimeAsia China to recycle approximately 54% of their water.
Water recycling practices have reduced PAV’s water usage from 125.6 litres of water/m2 of leather to 67.7 litres/m2 during the last four years, a reduction of 46%. Water saving best practices at both PAC and PAV include: collecting rainwater for usage in production processes, reuse of water within the production process and extensive use of recycled water throughout the facility. A 2013 trial reedbed water treatment project at PAV seeks to further increase water recycling levels (currently at 34%) in a constructed wetland system that increases water quality and reduces effluent discharge volumes. The annual company-wide water reduction goal in 2013 is an absolute reduction in water usage of 11% compared to 2012.
PAC and PAV also have extensive wastewater treatment facilities that treat manufacturing discharge water and daily monitor discharge of COD, SS, pH, and color. Quarterly a 3rd party laboratory monitors a full range of substances in the discharge water including the 11 Priority Chemical Groups under the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals. In 2011, a group of major apparel and footwear brands shared a commitment to lead the industry towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020 (see www.roadmaptozero.com). PrimeAsia does not discharge any of the 11 priority chemicals listed in the ZDHC from their wastewater treatment plants. All PrimeAsia discharge waters meet strict governmental and brand requirements.
In addition to engineering projects that reduce, treat, and recycle water, PrimeAsia also understands that educating employees needs to be a priority. PrimeAsia CEO Jon Clark states, “Employees do often directly identify ways to save water by stopping leaks or reducing water usage during production.”
Leather’s Impact on Water
We recognize that water is an increasingly precious resource that must be sustainably utilized and managed. PrimeAsia is committed to transparency and stakeholder collaborations that benefit the entire manufacturing supply chain. With the major water usage within the leather supply chain, cattle drinking water, will need joint collaboration from many industries to identify methods to reduce risk.
Analyzing past significant strides in water reduction, estimated 50% for tanneries involved in the Leather Working Group, future leather could be manufactured with significantly less water than today. By exploring future water risks and planning for them today, PrimeAsia will continue to strive to be a top innovator in the leather industry.
Read more from Sarah Swenson →