Western brands respond to report on Bangladesh tanneries

Leather made with child labor and under dangerous, polluted conditions in Bangladesh went to factories that produced goods for major U.S. and European shoe and handbag brands and companies, according to a report released Friday by New York-based nonprofit Transparentem. Those named in the report generally said they were concerned about the conditions at the tanneries, but that leather used in their particular products was made elsewhere.

Here’s a detailed look at their responses:



The report says leather from Apex Tannery Ltd. went to Apex Footwear Ltd., which made products for several retailers.

Syed Nasim Manzur, managing director of Apex Footwear and a director at the Apex Tannery, calls Hazaribagh “an environmental disaster” and said they’ll soon be closing their plant there. But he said the report is a “smear campaign,” allegations of child labor are unsubstantiated, and leather doesn’t move between their Hazaribagh tannery and shoe factory.

He said Transparentem “continues to make the completely false and unsubstantiated allegation that leather from Hazaribagh enters the supply chain of the shoes that (Western brands) buy from Bangladesh. This is false and this is wrong and this is unsubstantiated. And we challenge the NGO to prove otherwise. We have proven to the satisfaction of our customers the traceability of all the leather that we have used for the shoes that they buy from Bangladesh.”

Manzur said Apex Footwear and Apex Tannery are separate entities, although they have some owners in common and are associated businesses.

“Apex Footwear Limited as a responsible corporate citizen of Bangladesh is fully committed to ensuring that we comply with the all the laws of Bangladesh and we encourage dialogue with all stakeholders,” he said.



Transparentem also says leather from Bay Tannery Ltd. went to Bay Footwear Ltd.

Rezaur Rahman, technical adviser of Bay Footwear Ltd., told the AP that the report accusing Bay of employing any child workers anywhere is “absolutely baseless”.

“Our workers are under an established trade union, which closely works with us. We worked with the International Labor Organization and trade unions. I don’t understand how and where they found child workers in the industry,” Rahman said. “We don’t have any child workers.”

He said Bay Tannery is moving but a few more months may be needed to shift heavy equipment entirely to an industrial park in Savar with proper sewerage designed for tanneries.



In a statement, Clarks said that since 2013, the leather for all of its footwear production through Bay Footwear “has been specified from Clarks nominated tanneries outside of Bangladesh.”

“Clarks is only responsible for the sourcing of materials in our own products and cannot control the sourcing of others. Clarks takes responsibility for the social and environmental impacts of our operations and the welfare of those engaged in the production of our products at all levels of the supply chain extremely seriously and we continuously audit our supply chain, including Bay Footwear, to ensure it meets our rigorous standards. We have a history of taking corrective action where necessary.”



Steve Park, sales director at White Industry Co., said the South Korean company stopped accepting raw materials from Bangladesh late last year after the company was informed by U.S. clients such as Coach, Michael Kors and Kate Spade about environmental problems and child labor issues in Bangladesh. White had been selling leather to Simone Accessories that actually manufactured the products for those companies.

“Because of those problems, we are not using raw materials from Bangladesh and we are using instead (raw materials) from the U.S., Brazil and Pakistan,” he said by phone. Park said the company used to do businesses with five or six tanneries in Bangladesh. As of this year, it is doing business with none of them.



Robert Lee, a director at Simone, said the company learned of the environmental and human rights problems in Bangladesh in December and its leather supplier in South Korea stopped purchasing raw materials from Bangladesh starting in January.



Coach, whose website says its produce is “handcrafted from the finest American and European hides and textiles,” sent a statement to Transparentem and AP that said:

“Coach has no contractual or other direct relationship with White. Furthermore, we have confirmed that no more than 1.5 percent of Coach’s annual leather purchase was sourced from Hazaribagh. Nevertheless, based upon the information you have shared with us, it is wholly unacceptable to Coach that any leather product from Hazaribagh be used in manufacturing Coach products — regardless of how indirectly such products may have found its way into Coach’s supply chain, or how minimal the use of such products may be.”



Michael Kors did not respond to AP’s request for comment, but told Transparentem in a written statement that it took the allegations seriously. The company said it hadn’t knowingly sourced leather from Hazaribagh tanneries, but was several steps away from them in its supply chains. The company said it has told suppliers not to buy leather from Hazaribagh tanneries until they meet the company’s code.



In a statement, Kate Spade said it conducted an inquiry after receiving the Transparentem report and found that Bangladesh tanneries represented an “immaterial portion” its total leather purchases in the last three years, most recently falling under 1 percent.

“Further, we recently concluded that there are no Bangladeshi tanneries that satisfy our current Standards of Engagement or Environmental Policy, and therefore, we have decided to ban any continued sourcing of leather originating or undergoing any processing in Bangladesh.”

Kate Spade also said it would no longer accept “any leather sourced directly or indirectly from White, regardless of the country of origin.”



In a statement, Deichmann said: “We hereby declare that the Deichmann Group does not entertain any business relationship with that tannery whatsoever — neither directly nor indirectly.” It said that while Apex Footwear is a supplier, the leather used does not come from Apex Tannery in Hazaribagh, and that it had informed Transparentem repeatedly.

“Independent auditors, staff and our own teams pay regular visits to facilities in the Deichmann Group supply chains and confirm if the Code of Conduct and other mutual agreements entered into, are being complied to or not,” Deichmann said. It added that it reviewed its situation with Apex Footwear after hearing the Transparentem accusations and found “no irregular practices.”



The companies collectively hired attorney David N. Kelley, who provided this statement:

“1) Neither our clients, after substantial digging, nor Transparentem, has established that we have received any product or material from Apex Tannery.

2) The three companies have entered into an aggressive remediation plan with Apex Footwear, and its related company Apex Tannery notwithstanding the lack of direct ties to the Tannery.

3) Genesco and Madden have shut down any relationship with Apex Footwear pending the successful completion of the remediation plans and that Macy’s has threatened to do so pending the progress they make on the plans.”



In a statement, Harbor Footwear said: “There is no definitive connection between our company and the tannery in question. While we did have a short-term relationship with the factory there has been no suggestion by anyone that the tannery supplied any of the materials used in conjunction with fulfilling our order. Furthermore, prior to the findings shared by Transparentem we had decided not to continue to do any further business with that particular factory.

“As such, we continue to seek out and work with only those factories who look to maintain full compliance with regard to worker’s rights and environmental protection.”



Sears declined to comment to AP, saying it had not received the full report from Transparentem.

In letters to Transparentem, Sears officials said they were disappointed with the findings and quickly paid an unannounced visit at the tannery. The auditor did not find children at work, but did identify pollution, health and safety problems.

Sears said the tannery is not providing any leather for its products but because the tannery and shoe manufacturer shares a common owner, it was extending its human rights requirements over the entire group, starting with an onsite labor, health, safety and environmental review.



In a statement, Timberland and its parent company VF Corporation said they take “responsible sourcing” very seriously.

“We’ve been working with Transparentem for the past several months, responding to their questions and reinforcing, through our reported sourcing practices as well as back-up documentation, that we do not source from any tanneries in Bangladesh. All leather used for Timberland footwear made in Bangladesh (or anywhere, for that matter) is imported from tanneries outside Bangladesh.”