An obstacle raceThe tanning industry, even if exemplifying a circular economy, is often under pressure, crushed between demands for product performance and increasingly stringent regulations. A continuous challenge of specifications, restricted substances, and limits of analytical methods. In the meantime, researchers are studying the environmental footprint of tanning with and without chromium and the lifecycle of the product
Using a by-product of the food industry, the leather industry is by definition sustainable, and represents an excellent example of a circular economy, not least because of how it has learned to handle its waste in a virtuous way.
Nevertheless, the perception of the tanning industry of the market is not always so clear cut. The Italian tanning industry is now undoubtedly recognised as being of the highest quality, but only the professionals are aware of the daily commitment that goes into optimising the environmental footprint, with investments estimated between 5 and 10% of the annual turnover.
An enormous effort that – at least in countries where the environmental laws are respected – now guarantees leather produced with minimal impact on the environment, both in terms of emissions and resource consumption. “The tanner can now hold its head high” says Giancarlo Dani, head of one of the largest tanning groups in Italy, as well as the first to launch the “sustainable leather” brand.
But naturally, the path to complete sustainability
is still long and full of obstacles
In the fashion value chain, the word has almost become a mantra that is often misused. On the one hand, there is a constant evolution in the regulations, and on the other hand, there is increasing pressure from the market.
The continuous proliferation of requirements, together with the complexity associated with the control measures at a global level, are creating an uncontrollable increase in non-productive costs along the production chains and a parallel decline in the effectiveness of the proposed strategies and tools
This is supported by the “Disrupting Sustainability” document recently prepared by UNIC, which sums up the topic of crazy specifications that should provide a tool for achieving sustainability goals, but that in everyday practice, is often transformed into absurd demands that are impossible to meet.
“We cannot keep up with the demands of customers,” says Graziano Balducci from the Antiba tannery. To this is added objective difficulties linked to the limits of technologies and analytical methods, which often differ from laboratory to laboratory. “There is still a lot of confusion on the market,” commented Ernesto Pisoni, president of AICC, the Italian Association of Leather Chemists, “but we all must work together to make the scientific interests prevail”.
Meanwhile, the research is continuing at full capacity in the major research institutes in the sector.
The Life-cycle Assessment (LCA) and the calculation of the carbon footprint are some of the most interesting themes of the studies currently underway at the most important Italian and international research centres.
The Italian Tanning Union (UNIC) has just announced a new project to compare the impact of chrome tanning methods with alternative methods in collaboration with prestigious researchers and universities. The aim is to find out which tanning makes it easier to dispose of waste, which is the most sustainable and which system guarantees the most reliable performance. The commitment of associations is also focused on training in order to examine any kind of “hot” topic, from the REACH requirements to new metal-free tanning.
The Tanning Union has long since developed the “UNIC Specifications” which supports tanneries in managing the requirements relating to the chemical characterisation of leather and the requests, sometimes irrelevant, and sometimes inapplicable, contained in the client specifications.
The document, now in its eighth edition, is an easy to use and user-friendly tool that is updated at least every six months following the publication of any new SVHC substances by the ECHA.
UNPAC, the association that represents about 40 Italian manufacturers of tanning chemical auxiliaries, has also done its part by preparing the “Guidelines for Leather Chemicals,” dealing with the determination of chemical substances not allowed in leather processing formulations.
Last September, UNPAC also promoted and obtained the establishment of the Leather Chemicals Working Group within Table 013 thus becoming one of the active players in the tables of the CEN (European) standards and ISO (international) standards. The Association is also working on the mapping of the Carbon Footprint and LCA of auxiliary tanning chemical in order to achieve and regulate a shared and sustainable calculation model.
In the following articles, we give the work to the main European Research Centres in the tanning sector – from the Italian Research Leather Institute to Poteco, Satra, CTC and FILK – to photograph the state of the art, in order to understand the direction of research and take a look at future scenarios.