Kompass Nachhaltigkeit

Öffentliche Beschaffung


Social and ecologiscal risks in the supply chain of leather and leather products

What you should take into consideration when purchasing leather and leather products

One of the most toxic industries of all, the leather industry is responsible for some serious environmental problems at very many production sites around the world. In most cases, however, simply avoiding leather products is not the answer. Other raw materials, such as cotton or rubber,are also often farmed under problematic conditions. Nonetheless, monitoring and selectingmaterials – also for packaging – on the basis of their carbon footprint is a welcome move. The same goes for specific production procedures, such as tanning.

With respect to human rights and compliance with social standards along the value chain, the leather and shoe industry constitutes a high-risk sector.   

Besides leather footwear, municipalities often buy leather gloves, for example. Moreover, sustainable procurement should also take account of leather’s significance in furniture-making or the automotive sector.

Further Information

For general information on integrating sustainability into the procurement process, see here.

An online tool to assess the local human rights situation by "Helpdesk Business & Human Rights" is available here.

Municipal best practice examples of sustainable procurements of leather products, see here (German only).

Further information on leather (in German):

Supply chain risks of leather and leather products in detail

Supply chain in detail

Click on the individual stages in the information graphic on the left to learn more about the ecological and social risks when procuring leather products.

01 Extraction

The leather industry often uses 'waste' from the meat industry. Consequently, standards to protect animal welfare and regulate slaughter can be considered (cf. information on the procurement of food products). 

Thanks to its specific properties, leather made from animal hides from Amazonia, for example, isconsidered particularly suitable for protective footwear and therefore commonly used in this sector. The following problems are known to affect this region of origin (see also information on the procurement of paper products): 

Environmental risks

  • Illegal logging and clearing of rainforest for livestock farming (leads to increased CO2 emissions, a reduction in species diversity and soil erosion; for more on the environmental impacts of slash-and-burn forest clearance in the Amazon, see Geomax (2020) (in German)

Social risks

  • Illegal seizure of land from indigenous peoples 
  • Subjugation, intimidation and murder of environmentalists and indigenous rights activists

02 Production

It takes several stages of processing to turn raw hides into leather (i.e. lime production in wet areas; tanning to make wet blue or wet white intermediate products; retanning, dyeing, greasing). As a rule, this involves a lot of water and numerous highly toxic chemicals (chrome, as well as sulphuric acid or ammonia). In various countries (e.g. China, India, Pakistan or Bangladesh), tannery work commonly goes hand in hand with the following environmental and social ills. 

Environmental risks

  • High water consumption and sinking groundwater levels
  • Contamination of rivers and lakes, groundwater and soils 

Social risks

  • Workers not able to live off what they earn
  • Workplace poses a health hazard, particularly when using toxic chemicals and potentially hazardous machinery
  • No freedom of assembly or association and massively restricted collective bargaining rights
  • Problematic employment relationships without any legally viable contracts or sufficient social insurancecoverage
  • Inadequate protection against discrimination, harassment and violence at the workplace 
  • Excessive working hours, including unpaid (or underpaid) overtime
  • Child labour
  • Forced labour

03 Processing

Leather shoes are manufactured in China, India, Indonesia, Turkey and Viet Nam. Multiple social challenges arise – or are the norm – during shoe production (a process that involves cutting, stitching, upper manufacture and sometimes also sole bonding).

Social risks

  • Workers not able to live off what they earn
  • No freedom of assembly or association and massively restricted collective bargaining rights 
  • Problematic employment relationships without any legally viable contracts or sufficient social insurance coverage (both for factory workers and outworkers)
  • Inadequate protection against discrimination, harassment and violence at the workplace 
  • Workplace poses a health hazard
  • Excessive working hours, including unpaid (or underpaid) overtime
  • Child labour
  • Forced labour

04 Consumption

The public sector procures leather products for diverse target groups employed across various sectors, including waste management and green space maintenance, road construction, the German public order office (Ordnungsamt) or the fire service. Most of these target groups have to be fitted out with protective footgear that meets very specific requirements. 

With leather products especially, adequate steps should be taken to protect users by ensuringcompliance with the European REACH regulation on chemical residues. Sourcing long-lasting and high-quality products can reduce resource consumption and safeguard the wearer's health, especially in the case of shoes.  

Given the strict standards that apply to safety, protective and occupational footwear, options for repair remain limited. 

For some readily accessible information on the REACH regulation, see the German Environment Agency’s website (UBA).

05 Disposal

Worn shoes should only be donated for reuse if it is certain this will not have any undesirable effectson development. For example, selling second-hand shoes for a pittance to the local population in a developing country can undermine local shoe production, as is the case in Kenya, for example (see here, in German).

Environmental risk

  • Problems separating different materials for recycling, especially with shoes 

Social risk

  • Shoe donations with negative consequences for development

06 Transport

Shoes and their individual components mostly travel far before they are sold in Germany. Leather is transported from Brazil to India or China to be processed into semi-finished shoes. From there, these are then shipped to Finland or Italy, for example, for the final stages of processing before ultimately reaching the stores in Germany. This is what a typical safety footwear supply chain might look like. Shoe uppers (shafts) are almost never made in Germany. 

Furthermore, shoes are individually packaged for transport to the end consumer. Thus, additional resources are needed to manufacture packaging and transport the finished goods. 

The value chain uses a lot of resources for transport, causing high CO2 emissions. The Euro 6 emission standard (Commission Regulation EU/582/2011) applies to transport with heavy-duty vehicles, such as trucks, and procurement officers should demand compliance.