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What links the iconic River Ganges to the shoes on your feet?

 

If the shoes on your feet, the bridle on your horse or the wallet in your pocket comes from India, there’s a good chance it was produced in a tannery along the Ganges River. The problem is that these tannery clusters are causing an issue; they’re polluting the Ganges with heavy metals, process chemicals and other pollutants. Given that UK businesses and consumers have an interest in these products, we all have a responsibility to improve the sustainability of the industry. This World Rivers Day, I want to tell you about work we’re doing to protect our precious Ganges.

Traditional boat, Ganges river, Kahalgoan, Bihar, India, 2001 © naturepl.com / Neil Lucas / WWFTraditional boat, Ganges river, Kahalgoan, Bihar, India, 2001 © naturepl.com / Neil Lucas / WWF

The Ganges (or the Ganga as it is known in India) flows for over 1500 miles from the Western Himalayas, through north eastern India to Bangladesh where it discharges into the India Ocean. It supports a rich diversity of wildlife including the Ganges river dolphin, the gharial (also known as the Fish-eating crocodile), the smooth-coated otter and the golden mahseer. The Ganges also supports the livelihoods of more than 500 million people that live in the basin.

The Ganges is one of the world’s most iconic rivers yet it is also under threat; climate change, dams and barrages for hydropower and irrigation, and pollution from cities, agriculture and industry are placing great pressures on this iconic river.  Pollution is a serious problem for the Ganges. A particular area of concern for us at WWF is the impact of the leather industry which is found in clusters along the Ganges. The Kanpur leather cluster is one of the largest in India; it is comprised of over 400 tanneries and provides employment to over 100,000 people.

Outflow from the Jajmau sewage and effluent treatment plant in Kanpur. This plant takes much of the waste from Kanpur’s tanneries and, after some treatment, directs it to agricultural land for irrigation © Conor Linstead / WWF-UKOutflow from the Jajmau sewage and effluent treatment plant in Kanpur. This plant takes much of the waste from Kanpur’s tanneries and, after some treatment, directs it to agricultural land for irrigation © Conor Linstead / WWF-UK

Last year, the BBC produced a documentary on the impact people are having on the Ganges and it prompted a lot of discussion. The documentary focused on the challenges created by the leather industry, using the industrial cluster around Kanpur as an example. My colleague Lucy wrote a blog last year on the work we’re doing at WWF under the HSBC Water Programme to support efforts to clean up the Ganges and in the last year, this work has developed even further.

WWF mapped where leather made in Kanpur came to and we found that over 75% of the leather produced in Kanpur is sent to just ten countries globally; the UK was one of the top importers of this leather where it is used to make the shoes, bags and other leather products we see on every high street across the country.

That’s why we decided to try an approach to protecting the Ganges that involves working with the leather industry, UK retailers and other stakeholders in Kanpur to take action to protect the Ganga. The approach is based on the concept of water stewardship, which you can learn about in the animation below.

We’re thrilled to have some big brands and high street retailers on board including ASOS, the British Equestrian Trade Association, Jeffries, John Lewis, Matalan, New Look, Next, Shires Equestrian and Tesco, particularly as we know consumers want to be able to trust brands and companies to do the right thing. We’re taking a range of actions on the ground to work with tanneries to improve technical practices, investigate green finance options and support policy development. You can read more about the Ganges Leather Buyers Platform in this briefing.

Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus); India © Gerald S. Cubitt / WWFGharial crocodile. Gavialis gangeticus. India © Gerald S. Cubitt / WWF

But what does that all mean, and what should you do about it?

If you’re a company

Well, aside from knowing your water risk, if you’re a company that produces leather goods in India, we’d love for you to get in touch to have a chat about the Leather Buyers Platform (email WaterStewardship@wwf.org.uk). We’re keen to have new members join and are scoping out opportunities to expand the focus of the group.

If you’re a consumer

And finally, if you’re a consumer, take a look at your favourite pair of shoes, handbag, or wallet, and see if you can tell where that leather comes from. Does the brand you bought it from give you any information about their environmental policies? If they don’t, ask them what their sustainability policies are. Tell them that you care about the impact this product has on the environment. Make sure they know that as their customer, you want them to tell you how they make sure that their products don’t negatively impact on the environment.

WWF is building a future where people and nature thrive by helping businesses work in ways that protect the natural world they depend on. Subscribe to our One Planet Business newsletter for updates and inspiration on corporate sustainability.

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