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

Mar 12, 2018
Posted in: , Technical articles

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.

In this context, brands and labels have developed a diverse set of contractual requirements to be transferred upstream of their production chains, as well as numerous audit procedures to verify their implementation and progress.

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.

The CLeAR project for the transparency of laboratory results

The interpretation of the results of laboratory analyses has always been a critical point in the sector due to the frequent disparity of results between one laboratory and another, or rather between the supplier and customer. For the sake of clarity, UNIC has launched the CLeAR project (Confidence In Leather Analysis Results), which over time has become a permanent working group for tanneries, customers and other players throughout the supply chain. The primary aim is to reduce as much as possible any analytical errors deriving from the complexity of the leather matrix, by providing a vademecum entitled “Guidelines for the Management of Chemical Analysis.” It identifies sampling procedures, the correct practices to prepare the leather samples, recommendations for the correct preservation of leather and, last but not least, the information that an analytical laboratory must provide on its performance, in order to be reliable and accredited.

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”.

ICEC: a Sustainability Pass is needed

Sustainability is of increasing importance and represents an irreversible trend within the leather supply chain, also strictly for commercial reasons: non-compliant practices represent a very high risk for brands that play on the image and reputation. For some time now, the Italian Tanning Union (UNIC) has been strongly committed to ensuring that Italian tanneries integrate the concept of sustainability within the whole spectrum of their activities.

Hence the project proposed by ICEC auditor, Giacomo Zorzi, launched a few months ago during a seminar, “There is a need to implement a new approach within the supply chain that creates efficiency at all levels. A Sustainability Free Pass is needed based on the common awareness that the sharing of high-profile sustainable models between suppliers and customers represents an innovative and more efficient strategy to ensure full compliance with each principle of sustainability. We are offering the chain new management tools for an industrial activity based on a concept of effective transparency”.

Through UNIC, Italian tanners have joined the ZDHC platform and its “Roadmap to Zero”, the common roadmap of the fashion system to eliminate the discharge of harmful chemicals into the environment.
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.

The Certification of corporate sustainability

Certifying sustainability is complex. Talking about sustainability means tackling multidisciplinary areas (environmental, economic and product aspects, social and ethical factors) also at different levels (product, process, human resources, site, supply chain, etc.).
Born in 1994 on the initiative of the Italian Tanning Association (ICEC), it is the only institute dedicated exclusively to the leather industry. It proposes voluntary market certifications that certifies the quality, reliability, credibility and sustainable commitment of companies in the sector.
ICEC is ACCREDIA-certified for its quality management system (ISO 9001), environmental management system (ISO 14001), EMAS, occupational health and safety (OHSAS 18001), product (UNI standards or manufacturing technical specifications) and designation of origin of Italian Leather (UNI EN 16484).

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.

Not costs but savings

A talk with Yves Morin, CTC CEO & UITIC president

“Leather, a constant challenge“

Interview with Michael Meyer, head of leather dept. at FILK institute

Tannery, an example of circular economy

Domenico Castiello illustrates the activities of PO.TE.CO, the scientific pole of the Tuscan leather district

Communication and education are the key answers

Christine Powley-Williams, SATRA assistant director-commercial, speaks about the new challenges

Italian Leather Research Institute, the ongoing research

Italian Leather Research Institute, the ongoing research

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