Leon Buhr had been running Equator – the Belt Factory, South Africa’s biggest belt manufacturer, for 20 years when his young children questioned the environmental impact of his work. “They asked if Equator was sustainable, and what we were doing to protect the planet. I had focused on ensuring our employees are well looked after, but till then I hadn’t thought about the environmental impact of our business,” says Leon.
The questions started rolling during Leon’s sabbatical and “return to healthy cooking and composting.” He comes from a family of farmers and decided to use the break to focus on transforming his lifestyle by gardening, making healthier food choices and spending time with his family.
He returned to work with the energy and desire to change the way he did business. Equator, which is both a design house and manufacturer, produces belts and accessories for South Africa’s top retailers including Markham, Woolworths, Polo, Mr Price, Levi’s and Cape Union Mart. The business, founded in April 2001, has grown over the years, and in 2017 needed to move to bigger premises. Leon used this as an opportunity to contract a sustainability consulting company, Ecolution Consulting, to evaluate the new building and to apply for a Green Building Council Green Star rating. During this process Leon became aware of the complexity of sustainability. “I used to think sustainability was about solar panels and rainwater tanks. Now I see that sustainability applies to every single thing that we do. It’s a journey and a mindset. Sometimes we take two steps back before we take one step forward, but we keep focussed on the goal of being better tomorrow than we were yesterday.”Leon chose to focus on carbon neutrality and circular economy to steer decision-making. “These are the goals that we strive towards,” he says. In collaboration with this team, he devised an overarching sustainability strategy that breaks up the process into different areas of focus: Where and how is this belt made; what is this belt made from and how is this belt packaged and distributed?
“Within each category there is a host of challenges, goals and actions we need to take,” says Leon.
During the first part of the process, Equator became South Africa’s first manufacturer in the (CTFL) fashion supply chain to achieve a GBCSA Green Star certification. It included training employees in sustainability, minimising waste in the manufacturing process, and sharpening the company’s commitment to being an inclusive, dignified and enjoyable place to work. “Even as we shift focus to other areas, this remains a fundamental business value,” says Leon.
One of the shifts in focus is to innovate materials to ensure they use regulated tanning methods (such as LWG, OekoTex®, Reach), to increase recycled leather content, and to localise, where possible, raw materials and finishes such as belt buckles. In the past two years, the team have identified plant-based, plastic-free alternatives to the plastic (vegan) leathers which are often falsely marketed as eco-friendly solutions.
“So-called vegan plastic alternatives exacerbate rather than solve the problem. We admittedly still sell these but are trying hard to phase them out and create alternatives,” says Leon. “Leather created in a climate-damaging way, or tanned irresponsibly is incredibly harmful to the environment. I believe that a leather belt made from animals farmed in a regenerative way, that is tanned responsibly, produced, and bought to last is a very sustainable product. But we need multi-industry-wide transformation for this to be fully effective.”
Leon is clear that the journey to becoming more sustainable has challenges and dichotomies: From trying to balance length-of-life and end-of-life of products, to making sure products remain affordable in a price-sensitive local market, to balancing customer satisfaction, jobs and economic viability while transitioning to a more environmentally-friendly business model.
“Even faced with these challenges, I have found the process incredibly rewarding,” says Leon. “We have learnt so much, and while productivity has been difficult to measure due to Covid-19, I can tell that the inspiration, teamwork and motivation is higher because of our green journey.
“Not only are the employees our biggest sustainability advocates, but our customers are increasingly wanting to communicate where their belts are being produced owing to our sustainability credentials,” says Leon. “Ultimately I believe this is a sign for what is to come for the fashion industry. A future where people will know the factory and the faces behind their clothes and accessories. A future where the manufacturer is as visible as the brand itself.”
- Equator’s leather belts are on sale at The Belt Shop on Takealot.
- The team is working on what they believe to be one of the world’s most responsible belts – to be released in June
- This article was written by Sarah Robyn Farrell currently works with Equator on sustainability messaging, and bridging the gap between intention, impact and communication
- Images supplied