January 10, 2018 A sustainable craft
“Think global, act local.” For Swedish glove manufacturer LillSport, this means building an environmentally adapted tannery and starting a solar-powered glove factory with their partners in Ethiopia.
It sounds easy in theory when company CEO and founder Lasse Granqvist talks about the venture: “The best glove leather in the world comes from the Ethiopian Highlands, so it makes sense to tan the skins and sew the gloves on site in Ethiopia.”
In reality, however, it is not that easy. The family business LillSport was founded in Karlstad in 1984. Today, it is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of premium cross country gloves. The production takes place in the company’s own factory in Poland, employing 200 seamstresses.
“Sewing gloves is a craft that requires great skills. If you can sew gloves, you can sew basically anything,” Lasse Granqvist says.
Up to now, Ethiopia has lacked this craftsmanship, though the country actually meets most requirements for its own glove industry. The Ethiopian Highlands, with peaks up to 4 550 metres, are sometimes referred to as the Roof of Africa. Here, over 20 million of the large Highland Hairsheep graze. They are one of Ethiopia’s main sources of income. Milk and meat are important elements, but most important are the soft yet durable skins, which in the leather industry are considered some of the best for glove manufacturing.
According to the government-run Ethiopia Sheep and Goat Productivity Improvement Program (ESGPIP), 14–18 per cent of Ethiopia’s export income comes from hides, leather and skin from sheep and goats. Almost all are sold as uncultivated raw materials. The tanning, punching and sewing takes place in other countries. Granting Ethiopia a larger part of the value chain is one of ESGPIP’s main objectives, in addition to improving animal husbandry and land use.
These are goals that LillSport share.
“We want to be part of starting up a glove industry in Ethiopia and not just buy their raw materials. This way we contribute to development in a more sustainable way than if we had just donated money to an aid agency,” says Lasse Granqvist.
“Sure, we also have long-term economical goals here. But if we were only interested in making money, there are plenty of easier roads to take.”
Collaboration with local partner
LillSport has used Highland Hairsheep skin for decades. Eight years ago, the company came in contact with an Ethiopian entrepreneur who wished to develop his tannery, Bahir Dar Tannery. LillSport assisted in improving the tannery until it could produce leather with the same high quality as is found in countries with a major tanning industry. Controlling and reducing the tannery’s environmental impact was an important aspect in their work.
“Tanneries are usually a dirty industry. Today, you can drink the waste water coming out of Bahir Dar Tannery.”
In parallel, the idea was born to begin glove manufacturing in connection with the tannery. LillSport received a grant from the Development Finance Institution of Sweden, Swedfund, to build a glove factory in the town of Bahir Dar together with the Ethiopian entrepreneur. The factory opened in 2011 and has 35 staff seamstresses. After five years of cultural pitfalls, recurrent power cuts and time-consuming red tape, Lasse Granqvist and his co-workers still considered the project a big success. LillSport and the local entrepreneur decided to start a new, larger glove factory and close down the old one.
His daughter, Erika Granqvist, was one of those responsible when the new factory was built.
“We decided to go ‘all in’ on sustainability. For instance, the entire power supply will come from rooftop solar panels,” Erika Granqvist says.
“But the way we see it, the most important sustainability aspect is the transfer of knowledge. Now, we take the craftsmanship to the next level. Our best seamstresses from Poland have held courses on site, we have improved the punching and several Ethiopian seamstresses have been trained in Poland.” The factory is due to open early 2018. Since 2011, Erika Granqvist has visited Ethiopia about fifteen times and she has also lived there for longer stretches of time.
“It is important to remember that we get a lot back from this. It is incredibly rewarding and instructive to build something together with the generous and committed people that we work with in Ethiopia.”
LillSport at ISPO: Hall A2 125