“Leather, a constant challenge“Interview with Michael Meyer, head of leather dept. at FILK institute
Our aim is to re-establish the sustainable and ecologically friendly technologies to make leather, which had been produced in a sustainable manner for thousands of years, but in modern ways
With these words Michael Meyer defines the mission of the Research Institute FILK of Freiburg where he is at the head of the Leather Department. We asked his some questions.
Sustainability is a widely used word in these days. What is Filk’s point of view as regards hides and skins processing?
“Sustainability, indeed, is a much used word in any industry or sector these days. Taking the word by definition, describing a long-term, responsible guiding principle of using a resource only to the extent it can renew itself, the leather industry´s most important resource, hides and skins, is sustainable per se. In terms of processing hides and skins we think the industry together with its suppliers especially the chemical industry have put in great efforts over the last decade to lessen the impact of tanning on the environment and improve product safety. And there is progress visible. Though, with supply chains spread around the globe and a consumer that is becoming a prosumer due to fast and globally available information, thus taking more and more influence on product design, functionality and the process of manufacture, there is more to be done. It will be a constant challenge, we reckon. We might have to rethink economical processes altogether: circular economy, sustainable management, modest consumption in all areas of civil life“.
Sustainability has its value, but also its price. Implementation requires an aligned process of the entire value chain. A change of process is possible in short terms?
“I am convinced that we have to invest into this even stronger. I am not talking about money only there is also a strong need to educate the buying industries and collaborate stronger with stakeholders up and downstream the value chain in order to raise awareness of our industry. What the industry is desperately in need of is a common system of standards and a consolidation of the various initiatives of leather applying industries in terms of implementation of certain sustainability/CSR programmes. A mutual acceptance would help leather producers as well. However, efforts will probably not pay off short-time but on the longer run. There are enterprises who successfully implemented extensive CSR standards e.g. the Open Factory of Tatonka. Meindl footware is another example: the company implemented a totally transparent supply chain: with Meindl Identity® the customer can virtually track the shoe back to the farm. And the consumer is willing to pay for this information and peace of mind. So far, this is still niche business and surely not working in every part of the world straight away, but we as an industry have to start somewhere“.
Who are the main customers of your laboratories and which are the most requested analyses and tests?
“Our customers come from several industrial sectors like the chemical industry, car and upholstery industry, shoe and apparel manufacturers, the coating industry and suppliers of products for medical applications. Our laboratories carry out a wide range of physical tests, chemical analysis as well as biological tests. The demand of specific analysis varies and strongly depends on the industrial sector. In some cases the analysis of restricted substances is much more important than physical tests. For products with long-term durability parameters like ageing or abrasion resistance may be of importance thus requiring physical and ageing tests“.
Manufacturers often complain about discordances of results among different laboratories. What do you think?
“Yes, that is a common problem. Our accredited test laboratories take part voluntarily in interlaboratory trials on a regular base which is a significant indicator for our performance. These round robin tests also reveal whether there is need for method harmonisation. Furthermore, with our accreditation and our quality management system in place we guarantee that all tests are carried out in strict accordance with the related standard at all times. Also, any analysis of restricted substances is carried out at least in duplicate with two completely independent analysis runs. Unfortunately, I have to say that is not the case in all laboratories due to cost savings. However, our test lab is always open to discuss the topic of diverging test results together with the customer and other market participants“.
Which are the big challenges of the leather sector in the next future?
“In my opinion, the biggest challenge in the leather sector in the future will be to hold the position of leather as valuable and precious material with high performance and not to ruin this image with low quality. Furthermore, we have to indicate always, that the tanneries are using a by-product of the meat industry, which would elsewise have to be disposed or processed into low value products. Some discussions are going in a wrong direction assuming that the raw material for leather production, the hides, are only produced to make leather. Not least, the young must not be lost, using leather as durable material in a world of short period product cycles“.
Can you tell us something about Filk leather research activities and next goals?
“In our leather department we perform R&D for all steps of the leather processing and value chain, beginning from the sources, the hides and the corresponding animals, their race, breeds. We look on principle processes, as sulfide free liming, alternative tanning methods, bio based retanning and finishing to find further environmental friendly solutions. We have also projects with the machinery industry to achieve finitely industry 4.0 standards. The use of by-products and possible further applications along side the leather sector is important as well“.