Sustainable Development of Leather Accessories and Footwear Fashion Industry in South Africa

[this project is one of the feeder attribute components of the crade-to-grave blockchain for leather provenance]

We have no choice but to manage our natural resources in a sustainable way or they become depleted. We have no option but to be Eco-friendly or face consequences of global warming. We have no choice but to improve our economy or we risk opening doors to poverty. In everything we do, we have the next generation to consider.

Sustainable development is hard to define without appreciating the interdependence between economic growth, social protection, and environment impact.


South Africa’s sustainable development vision is charted in the National Framework for Sustainable Development (2008) as “South Africa seeks to be a sustainable, economically prosperous and self-reliant nation that safeguards its democracy by meeting the essential human needs of its people.  Managing its scarce ecological resources responsibly for current and future generations, and by advancing efficient and effective incorporated planning and governance through national, regional and global collaboration”.

The vision above will serve as a guide in this study. Focusing mainly on the economic affluence of this sector and intense competitive challenges it faces at present.

The topic of research will look at issues of sustainable development of leather accessories and footwear. The core research question for this paper is: what are the challenges faced by South Africa in its strides to ensure growth, competitiveness and continuity in the leather accessories and footwear fashion sector? The paper seeks to gather valuable insights on key areas of focus and issues requiring attention in the short, medium and long term. Supported by practical and implementable action plans to build on existing best processes, programmes, and Initiatives.  

Current Challenges

The leather industry is one of the fast-growing commercial segments in the world. Studies suggest that world leather production is currently running at least between 21 and 22 billion square feet”. In South Africa, this sector accounts for over 22% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), employ 23% of South Africa’s total employment. The success of this sectors is critical to our economy and a better life for all.

As lucrative as this sector is, it currently faces lots of challenges which threatens it’s economic competitiveness. The challenges are as follows:

  • Ageing workforce and lack of transferable skills
  • The sector is labour extensive and lacks innovation
  • Lack of competencies particularly at the managerial level. Resulting in poor productivity
  • Limited design capabilities result to low level of competitiveness
  • China imports stifle local leather goods sales

Possible solutions

One can tell the future of the organisation from the way it takes care of its employees and the environment. Sustainable and appropriate employment motivates staff and results in increased productivity. When it comes to sustainability, continuous improvement is critical. One can never say he/she have arrived. Sustainable solutions will be sought through investigating the following areas:

  • Researching ways to strengthen local industry’s design capabilities to design for longevity.
  • Investigating strategies for improving management skills and transparency in design and production to enhance
  • Researching technologies that can create conditions for companies to produce footwear at reasonable prices for local markets with a view of improving local their cash to cash cycle time.
  • Critically analyse the challenges of entering into subcontracting agreements abroad to fast track skills and technology.
  • Developing train the trainer initiatives intending to preserve skills and ensure continuity in this sector
  • Encouraging collaborations such mentor-mentee relationships as well as at peer level
  • Researching creative ways for promoting the development of regional markets for finished leather products. To strengthen technical skills and production capacity which ensure continuity and serve as a buffer when the market expands.


Available policies supporting the country towards sustainable development

There are few enabling policies which can help in moving the sector towards being more competitive long-term. They are as follows:

  • New Growth Path: setting out critical indicators for employment creation and growth and finds where viable changes in the structure are
  • Ten-year innovation plan: showing that South Africa is well positioned to lead research on the continent regarding understanding and projecting variations to the physical system; the influence of these ups and downs; and easing to reducing their effects in the long run
  • National Strategy for Sustainable Development and Action Plan


This paper leads to the conclusion that for Leather Accessories and Footwear sector to win this battle, players in this sector ought to form a close – knit team of like-minded individuals united by a common thirst: to help the transformation of our country.  There is much to be done to improve the competitiveness of this sector. However, this cannot materialise when we work in silos it requires the collaboration of all stakeholders within the industry. On our own we are fantastic, together we are unstoppable!


[this project is one of the feeder attribute components of the crade-to-grave blockchain for leather provenance]

Water scarcity
Water is one of the most important natural resources on earth. About 71% of the Earth’s surface is occupied by water and only 29% consists of continents and islands. With 71% of the water on earth, only 3.5% is frozen water locked up in the polar ice caps and freshwater lakes. The remaining 96.5% of all the water on Earth is salty seawater (Williams and Williams). Water is becoming, even more, scares and it will soon become a commodity resource.

Source: UN: FAOWATER, Water Scarcity, July 2009

‘Water for Life Decade’ campaign of the United Nations (UN), has made it clear that every continent is already affected by water scarcity. Around 1.2 billion people live in a shortage of water and are faced with economic water shortage because other countries lack the necessary infrastructure to access the water from rivers and aquifers.

Water use in the Leather industry
In most cases, industries including tanneries require clean water to carry out their manufacturing processes. Leather making processes involve huge quantities of water, especially in the beamhouse steps. The Leather Working Group (LWG) is also aware of the water consumption in the leather industry, it designates that efficient tanneries consume about 127 liters of water whereas inefficient tanneries consume three times more than efficient tanneries, about 351 liters of water is consumed to produce 1 m2 of leather from raw to finished (LWG, 2010). This is a challenge that the leather industry is facing today; the industry consumes a lot of water and most of the water that is consumed ends up being polluted.

Source: ECOLOGIST, Photo: Danwatch, October 2012

There are a lot of things involved during leather making processes, in fact, wastewater from the leather industry is considered to have huge amounts of organic and inorganic substances and its purification is a crucial activity around the globe (THORSTEN & MARTIN, 1996). Typically, the beamhouse steps generate high amounts of toxic, hazardous, and non-benign substances to the environment like salt, sulfide used for unhairing during liming sub-process and ammonia during deliming step. Leather production result into removal of undesirable things from the pelt, like; hair or keratin, unwanted protein, fat and other things, most of these things are removed using heavy chemicals.
According to the mass balance of chemicals in the leather processing by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), most of the chemicals used in the leather making process does not end up in the final product. A total of 452 kg/ton of chemicals of wet salted hide is added in the process but only 72 kg/ton of chemicals end up in or on our desired product, meaning that 84% of chemicals ends up in the wastewater (Jakov & Ivan, 2015). If an effluent is not discharged accordingly, it ends up contaminating the freshwater and indeed contribute to greywater footprint.
Leather industry in South Africa
South Africa has approximately 20 tanneries of different sizes which are in different parts of the country. These tanneries process more than two million hides/skins per year, and they consume about 0.6 million m3 of water (Steffen, et al., 1989)
South Africa being a water-scares country, it is crucial to use water responsibly and in a sustainable manner. Therefore, it is also important to explore new or better technologies to reduce water footprint in the South African leather processing plants.
Aims and objectives
• The main aim is to conduct a literature review on the latest technologies and assess the viability of the technologies contain within that review.
• To point out possible and acceptable latest technologies that will help to reduce the water footprint in the South African leather processing plants.
• Assess the best technology preferred by the South African leather processing plants
• Collect water footprint data of the sub-processes involved during leather making process from at least five South African tanneries.
• Collect available data of the South African leather industries from other sources like the department of trade and industry (the DTI), that works closely with all the South African tanneries.
• Prepare semi-quantitative questionnaires, question and answers session, and ask them in a structured way to score the best technologies that can be implemented in the South African leather processing plants.
• Promote the technology that will possibly reduce the water footprint within the South African leather industry based on collected data analysis.

To collect data and evaluate the challenge that the South African leather processing plants are facing, an accessible and dynamic semi-quantitative questionnaire will be developed. The presentation about the available and practical technologies on the reduction of water footprint will be prepared and presented to the South African tanneries. The main aim of this presentation is to expose the latest technologies that are commercially available that the South African industries are not familiar with. These will also encourage them to share the latest technologies that they aware of and also be able to share their knowledge by assessing which technology is the best bases on different reasons that they might know of. Question and Answers sessions will also be performed in order to the information that will be useful for this research.
The questionnaires will be asked in a structured manner and they will be asked in a fixed question list.
I will then critique and Annalise the data collected based on the questionnaires and question and answers sessions and carry out my study on it.