Leather has been used since time immemorial for clothing humans. However, in recent years, leather has received a bad reputation because some manufacturers have used a lot of energy and dangerous chemicals to produce it. Yet, some would argue that the industry did not deserve this tag. In fact, there are companies who are changing the dichotomy of leather’s negative reputation. Heinen Leather is one of those companies. The family-run leather company was established in Wegberg, Germany in 1891 and is still going strong today.
Here, Bio Insight Markets’ Liz Gyekye caught up with CEO Thomas Heinen.
Liz Gyekye (LG): Welcome to 5 Minutes With, Thomas. Tell me about your company.
Thomas Heinen (TH): The company was founded around 130 years ago by my great-grandfather Josef Heinen and from day one he specialised in producing shoe upper leather from animal hide. My father Karl Heinen took over the business in 1961 and he developed a waste water plant during his time as CEO, which was unusual for a tannery to launch during this period). In 1999, I took over the business. Being a tannery in Europe is not easy. Over the last 30 years, a number of business have disappeared due to several factors, primarily due to environmental issues and the strength of the Asia-based tanneries.
When I entered the family business, I found that customers tended to be mainly concerned with price and quality. However, fast forward to the noughties (00s), and I was noticing that customers were beginning to focus on sustainability trends and reducing the environmental impact of their products. So, I started to direct our company to focus on our environmental efforts. We now make our leather under the label Terracare. Under the Terracare umbrella, we use and develop ecological tanning methods, which result in lower water and chemical consumption. Not all of the animal skin is used for the leather. In fact, around 75% is not used. So, we can put some of that material into biological gas plants and create energy from it. The tannery produces all the renewable energy it consumes and unavoidable C02 emissions are neutralised through international reforestation programmes. Also, the rawhides used to make Terracare are farmed in Germany and each hide can be traced to its original farm.
LG: How do customers receive your label?
TH: All these environmental efforts cost money. So, you need customers that are willing to pay that money. Some customers can be hesitant to use our labels because they do no want to take attention away from their brand and divert it to Terracare. Nevertheless, we are working with a number or brands now who are willing to put the Terracare label on their product, which is a very important step for us because it helps put the focus on ‘transparency’. Sustainability does not work without transparency. You have to question what you are buying and ask questions like ‘is the product I am buying really green and sustainable?’ ‘What are the CO2 emissions used to make this product?’ We can only be transparent if our customers put the Terracare label on their shoes.
LG: Talk to me about your role. What did you do before you became CEO of Heinen?
TH: It sounds funny, but my father actually told me that I should never go into this business. He ran this factory when everyone around us was closing down. When he was my age, there were more than 150 tanneries in Germany and by the time he retired there were only 30 left. Right now, we have 12. As a responsible father, he told me not to go into the tannery business. So, before I worked in the family business, I went to work in the automotive industry. After I finished my MBA in the US, I worked in that sector. And, I loved it. However, at some point I came back into the business after doing some leather training.
LG: What do you say to people that leather should not be made?
TH: Like it or not, people do eat meat. You have the skin left over there. So, what do you do with it? You can put it in an energy-from-waste plant and create energy from it or you can make leather. Being one of the oldest materials that has ever been invented, it would be a shame to find hardly any tanneries left.
LG: How do you see your organisation panning out post-Covid?
TH: I believe in leather.
This crisis has shown that globalisation has its defects, even though it is a good thing overall. A lot of our European customers that have been sourcing from different countries across the globe have been rethinking where they source their leather from. Due to this crisis, they are now rethinking their supply chain and focusing on how they can source their leather more locally. From the supply side, the hides are around because people eat meat.
There are still many shoe factories that we supply to. We also supply our leather to help make mobile phone covers, and iPhone straps, among other things.
LG: What’s your view on alternatives to leather?
TH: Eating habits are changing all the time. Actually, I don’t eat meat myself – I am a vegetarian. I do believe there is a lot of meat consumption, especially in the Western world. That cannot be right. On the other hand, I believe that there is a reason why humans developed in the way that we did. This is because we eat protein. Babies also need to consume milk. So, it is good that there are options to eat meat. At the same time, from a sustainability point of view, some of these so-called alternatives are oil-based and they rarely have renewable resources in them. Sometimes you get a base layer like cotton, then you might put pineapple leaves that layer. However, this material can then be bonded with some type of fossil fuel-based plastic. So, are these products more environmentally-friendly than leather? Even the technical properties are not that great. Some are not even durable.
Vegan-type material is OK. I am not against this. I am not going to convert a vegan person to eat meat or use leather. However, I think traditional leather is still more durable and sustainable than some of these alternatives.
LG: In times of economic crisis, people tend to switch off from the environment. Do you think that consumers will still be concerned about the environment post-Covid?
TH: Yes. I think the young generation are very concerned about the environment. You need to be open to do things differently. This might involve using transport such as rail, which will take longer but cut down on carbon emissions. We cannot continue to live the way we have and deplete the world’s finite resources.
LG: What is your main challenge at the moment?
TH: Getting the sustainability message across to our customers and on to the end-consumer. At the point of sale, the environmental information can get lost because it is so complex. Nine times out of ten, a consumer will just want to buy a product and may not read too much into it. So, the biggest challenge is to explain to the consumer why one product is better than the other, even though it may be a bit more expensive.
Politicians also need to make sure that a lot of this fast fashion is tackled. In fact, I think it should be made illegal. If a T-shirt is €2, you don’t have to work at McKinsey to understand how this product was made.
We need to embed transparency into the supply chain, so that the consumer understands how the product was made sustainably and make a choice to buy ‘green’ products.
LG: What’s your favourite sustainability product?
TH: Wood. One side of my family were tanners and the other side were carpenters. I have a lot of wood products at home. I like the aging of wood. It is so versatile and you can do a lot with it.