Every year, Colombia’s leather, footwear, and accessories industries converge on the capital of Bogotá for an important, dual event: The IFLS + IECE Expo, held at the Corferias exposition complex. The IFLS, International Footwear & Leather Show is in its 45th edition, and the International Exhibition of Supplies, Machinery and Technology is in its 27th year. For the last 12 years they have been combined, making the IFLS + IECE Colombia’s most important event for manufacturers and buyers.
The industry trade group is ACICAM, the Asociación Colombiana de Industriales del Calzado, or the Colombian Association of Footwear Industry, with around 350 members. Finance Colombia’s Executive Editor Loren Moss was able to speak briefly with ACICAM’s President, Andrés Zuluaga during the busy event.
Finance Colombia: Colombia is very famous for the cattle industry, beef products, not only meat, but also products such as footwear. In Bucaramanga, for example, it is a capital that is very famous, because of shoe factories. Medellín is famous for its fashion, textiles and things like that. So, tell me about the importance of the footwear, leather goods, and leather industries for Colombia.
Andrés Zuluaga: The footwear, leather, and leather goods industry in Colombia is a very important industry. Last year we exported to the United States around $35 million dollars, only in footwear and $57 million in leather goods to the United States. We are labor intensive producers.
Our industry is an industry that is labor intensive and that is what makes it so beautiful because more than an industry, it ends up being a craft. There are products that are labor intensive and that makes them very, very beautiful and with very interesting attributes. And as you said, Santander and North Santander, that is (the capitals of), Bucaramanga and Cúcuta are clusters of this type of product. Obviously, Medellín is also a very important city because, in addition to having factories that produce bags and footwear, it is also a very important fashion cluster that integrates the production of footwear and clothing.
One important thing is that now we can see, for example, in the destination markets talking about the United States, Canada, Europe: Consumers, and also marketers, are more concerned about sustainability and want to know about the supply chain.
Not so much in Colombia, but we have seen in some neighboring countries that there are problems, that some products are not completely from a sustainable chain, as we are going to say, harvested sustainably from the land, sustainably from forests, things like that. We can also see, not so much in Colombia, but as for products from Asia that they are saying: “we want to see the labor that is manufacturing these things. We want to know that this workforce is fair and just, and the people have formal jobs with benefits and such.
Finance Colombia: Tell me about Colombia, what things the ACICAM trade association has, and what measures the Colombian industry has to assure consumers that the products here are fair from the labor aspect, also from the environmental sustainability aspect.
Andrés Zuluaga: The leather industry unfortunately has a reputation that is not very good because the process of tanning leather implied a lot of waste of water and also a lot of pollution. Fortunately, our affiliates are in a highly judicious and sustainable process where there are not only solar plants, but also wastewater treatment plants, and carbon accounting.
So today we have measurement and it is that 50% of the exhibitors that are at the fair today already have some type of sustainability process, be it carbon footprint measurement, be it solar energy consumption processes or water processes. So we are to a very good extent, as a trade association, we are supporting this issue of sustainability. It seems to us that it is the only way to give support to an industry over time.
Finance Colombia: True and well, look at this event of yours. You already have more than 45 years in the original event, as there were two events already together and we have seen that there are many buyers, that there is a lot of international interest, now Colombia has free trade pacts with several countries: with the United States, with South Korea, with the European Union. So, what projects are you doing to promote the footwear industry, the Colombian leather goods industry in the rest of the world?
Andrés Zuluaga: As an industry association we have some very important partners, like ProColombia. We are inviting international buyers to this fair. Today buyers from 21 countries visit us, there are 39 missions that come from other countries of the Americas to buy in Colombia and they do so first of all because of the fame of the quality product and well-made fashion concepts.
But also due to compliance issues, we are very close, we are in a place that is equidistant from South America and North America, and you know that Asia has had very large shortages after the COVID 19 epidemic, they have found an interesting alternative in Colombia and that has made exports to other countries grow interestingly.
Finance Colombia: What about the importers who perhaps are not yet negotiating with Colombian industry? How can they explore and see what opportunities there are for business, if one has not yet done business with Colombian companies?: Speaking specifically of this sector and what you have to offer. Because Colombia is not known as the cheapest country in the world, and that is good because Colombia has a good standard of living compared to other competing countries. But, what is the different commercial offer of Colombia?
Andrés Zuluaga: The different offer in Colombia is definitely on the subject of footwear, it is comfort and quality. We are not large-volume producers like China is, like Asia is, but the things we do are done very well. So here you will find a differential product that has a theme of quality and convenience and comfort that people will distinguish as soon as they see it, and proof of this is that we are at an international fair. We have 337 exhibitors here, a very representative sample of what the country is.
We are in Corferias, a facility that is endorsed by the Ministry of Health and the government and obviously there are entities as serious with us as the Chambers Of Commerce of Bogotá and some other regions. And obviously ACICAM is supporting this event.
Finance Colombia: And if there are some importers, some dealers, some companies in the rest of the world, obviously they are not at the fair this year. What is the process, how they should start, maybe exploring a portal, or talking to the trade association. How can one start the process?
Andrés Zuluaga: There is a portal where our fair is. IFLS + IECI. You go there and you can find support. As you said, for a long time exposing two versions of the fair, you will not only find finished products, but also machinery and supplies for the footwear industry. And that is very important. In other words, if you are a supplier of raw materials, if you are a supplier of machinery, you can come here and tell us what you have. One of the important advantages that we also have as shoe producers is that in addition to incorporating Colombian industrial processes, we also have some things imported from Italy or other countries that give shoes a very interesting category. So we invite everyone who is interested in entering the IFLS+EICI website and to visit us and see the dates from there. The next fair will be in August, in August we have the next fair, most likely between the first and the 15th of August. There will be the dates.