Stahl has long been a pioneer towards sustainability and transparency. They seem to be everywhere, are present at all the important conferences, are at the table when decisions are being made about compliance & sustainability and they appear to be one of the largest chemical suppliers for the leather industry.
That’s why we wanted to learn more about Stahl and their approach. Last month (at the opening of Stahl’s Centre of Excellence in Parets the Vallès) we were lucky enough to share a place on the dinner table with Michael Costello, the sustainability director at Stahl, and we grabbed that chance to ask him some questions. We’ve summarised this fascinating conversation for you right here. Read and learn!
Michael Costello (Now living in Barcelona) has been with Stahl for 22 years and took over the role when Mike Tomkin retired (2015) to become Stahls Sustainability Director. Originally educated as a Chemist in Dublin, he also completed an MBA in Business, Marketing and The Environment, where his eyes were opened by his marketing teacher. ‘She introduced all of us to the necessity for looking at marketing from the point of view of the environment. Not just for marketing purposes or selling purposes but for real ‘saving the world’ kind of purposes. And she really focused us in every single module of that course we did there was an element of the environment with it. And I never forgot that because I never thought about it like that before.’
Dramatic changes and competitive advantage
Since Stahl started pushing sustainability into a corporate strategy (around 2012/2013) things have changed dramatically according to Michael. ‘Nobody was ready for it, it was a bit of a story but then the customers started reacting to it and everybody realised that this was correct, something we had to do’.
5 years ago Stahl employed around 1200 people and had 9 factories. Now they boast upwards 1800 people and have 13 factories globally. Of course, some of this growth has been due to the acquisition Clariant Leather Services but also Stahl’s innovative solutions that have doubled or tripled sales since their introduction (like Stahl EasyWhite Tan™ and STAHL EVO). Stahl recently announced to acquire the BASF Leather Chemicals Business as well, so they will grow even further in future. ‘We need to be a leader and we think size is important, to be able to push the agenda for sustainability, to push the transparency you have to be in a leadership position otherwise nobody will do it, nobody will follow.’
Michael travels the world taking part in conferences, seminars, presenting their case to the market, the brands and their customers. They’re involved in all the associations and initiatives that are active. For example; Michael is on the executive committee of the Leather Working Group, Stahl is also a member of the ZDHC and many more (check out their Sustainability report). Michael works closely with all departments within Stahl to find out where sustainability input is needed. Stahl is using their leader position towards sustainability as a competitive advantage. ‘It’s also about the commercial side, selling ourselves. We are not embarrassed about that. We are quite proud that we can make a competitive advantage from this.’
Of course there are still tanneries that are not very sustainable but Michael thinks they are probably not going to last very long the way the world is going. In the end tanneries will do what ever it takes to keep their customers.
Tanneries that don’t want to comply will lose business and disappear. There are also situations where Stahl is pushing on environmental benefit (not necessarily mandatory by law), in those cases it’s still about price and what the tannery believes is beneficial. ‘It’s not really related to sustainability.. It’s more related to any value added feature you add to a product that you ask your customer to pay for. If they see value in it, then they buy it.‘
Stahl sells a premium product and this also comes along with a heavier price tag in comparison some of their competitors. ‘We charge a premium because we give a better service than other companies and we’re not shy about that. We think that is fair and we’ve been successful doing that for many, many, years. It’s not to do with sustainability it’s just to do with business. If you give a better service you get a better product. It’s not more expensive because it’s sustainable, but it all costs money of course’
To achieve their sustainability goal, Stahl has identified 5 focus areas. You can read all the details in their Sustainability report.
- Raw Materials – suppliers, and the products & services that they provide
- Responsible Operations – all the activities associated with doing business in Stahl
- Trusted Partnerships – collaboration with third parties throughout the supply chain
- Innovative Solutions – the products & services that they offer their customers
- People & Society – employees and the communities around them One of the internal goals is the CO2 target that is in line with the Paris climate agreement of 2015.
This is what they’re doing to reach that target:
- Actively looking into buying windmills in India to power those local plants
- Looking into using biomass to fuel some of the reactors in Holland and Europe
- Researching into solar power – Already buying a lot of green electricity from the market
- Looking at reducing travelling for internal meetings
- Electric cars
- LED systems
- Laptops that go into safe mode after a few minutes
And of course, it’s easy to set targets but it’s only when you measure your progress that they mean anything. Michael explains: ‘We have a system where we measure environmental KPI’s (Key performance indicators). They are reported to the board every month and then at the end of the year we are also audited in the way we are measuring these. So there is energy, water, waste and CO2. We have an independent auditor coming in, measure these, check the way that we are reporting is correct and then they give us the green light to report this in our sustainability report.’
Biodegradable leather and the importance of design in the recyclability of leather
Michael says leather is biodegradable as a material but if you want it to last, you want it to be durable. To make it durable chemicals and coatings have to be put on it and by nature these coatings and chemicals are not biodegradable (If they would, the leather would not be durable).
Michael thinks it’s a balance, the recycling of leather is a good solution too. Recycling is not so much about the materials you use on the leather but it’s about the way the shoe or the bag is designed. When the materials can be separated easily (after end of life) it would make a huge difference in the recyclability, rather than the specific chemistry inside it. So if you have a seat where the plastic can be easily separated from the material and the foam can be easily ripped away then that’s a huge gain in terms of recyclability and that makes the product more recyclable.
There are also still products that don’t have any eco-friendly alternatives in the market, for example, biocides (Stahl doesn’t make these). They are required so that the leather doesn’t turn bad. Many of these substances are not desired and companies don’t want them in their supply chain because they end up in water, the water then has to be treated. However, there is no eco-friendly alternative.
Biggest challenges en route to a sustainable future
“The biggest challenges we have now is balancing all of the restricted substances list that are coming onto the market. Which ones do we go with, do we go with all of them, how do we react to them. It’s not easy. Each brand has it’s own MRSL (Manufacturing Restricted Substances List)”
At Total Shoe Concept we think it’s great to see a world leader embracing sustainability and making it work for them as a strategy, rather than shying away and ignoring the issues and doing the same old the same old way. It’s been inspiring for us and and we hope you’ve learned something too!