How to reconcile leather processing with the environment? The AICC National Convention examined this delicate issue with four testimonies from those who have already done it
Standing room only in the Municipal Auditorium of Chiampo for the 44th AICC National Convention held on 18 November 2016, which invited members to discuss a very sensitive topic: “Tanning and sustainable development”.
Gilberto Adami, coordinator of AICC Veneto, opened the discussions by briefly outlining the Association’s commitment to students at the local Galileo Galilei Institute (who are supported in their training program with scholarships, text books and visits in companies) and to the professional refresher courses it organises for members.
Beyond traditional fatliquoring
The Conference then came alive with a speech by the engineer Giancarlo Lovato of Corichem, who presented “A new class of polymeric fatliquoring” which the company designed to improve the ecological aspect of the process. The aim is to go beyond traditional fatliquoring, in particular, sulphated fish oil, while protecting the properties of the material (softness, roundness, touch) and the standard production procedures of tanneries.
In his speech, delivered together with Doctor Michela Paganin, Lovato talked about the research advancements, presenting three types of basic structures (obtained respectively from raw fatty acids; raw fatty acids or natural triglycerides; and a mixture of ethoxylated and lecithin substances), which can be delegated to sulphidation, sulphation and phosphation. The results of the various pilot tests indicate a degree of softness similar to that achieved with traditional sulphated oils, with a 30% reduction of COD, higher fixations in comparison with sulphated fish oils, extremely low fogging values, excellent dispersing power on natural leather lubricants and excellent dyeing uniformity. The versatility of these new lubricants allows its adoption in all fields (automotive interiors, footwear, leatherwear, clothing, furniture). It also provides a basis for the development of additional types of polymeric fatliquors, simply by changing some parameters and evaluating the different properties on leather.
Time for a circular economy
This was followed by a presentation from Guido Zilli of the Dani Group, in collaboration with Roberto Steccanella and Clizia Franceschi of ILSA SpA. The two companies are working, in synergy with the Mastrotto Group, Ikem and Acque di Chiampo Spa, in the Green Leather Industry for the Environment (GreenLIFE) project and shared their views on the current state of play. The project starts with a merciless analysis of the state of facts: if the current development model remains, with relative consumer trends and population growth, the European Environment Agency forecasts a doubling of demand for raw materials by 2050. A situation about to collapse because this model consumes more resources than what the planet is able to regenerate.
Many more resources: which would need two and a half planets to supply. The course must be reversed and this can be done by abandoning the current model of a linear economy (raw materials, production, use and waste) and adopting the rules of a circular economy (raw materials, production, use and recycling into new raw materials). For the tanning sector, this means a reduction in the use of water and high-impact chemical products, with the need for innovation in these areas. The GreenLIFE project fits into this context and aims to reduce the consumption of water and of chemical products by 20% in the beamhouse stage; and to recover and re-use 15% of tanning by-products and a large reduction of sulphides in the hair-removal stage. In addition to these technical aspects, the project is also an opportunity to create a platform for sharing experiences, technologies and tools for preliminary estimates on the benefits and costs linked to an eventual up-scaling on a district level through emerging technologies, in a fruitful synergy between public and private associations (GreenLIFE receives 50% of its funds from the European Union).
From the goals to action
ILSA, a company specialising in the production of agricultural fertilizers, recovers by-products coming from traditional liming baths with hair recovery (Mastrotto Group), oxidative liming (Dani), enzymatic liming (Ikem), “chromium free” trimming and shaving (Dani and Ikem), in order to develop organic-mineral NP fertilisers (i.e. that only contain organic nitrogen and phosphorus of an organic origin). Tested on plants, they give positive effects on growth and vigour. It is hoped that this experiment can be carried out at an industrial scale. The exams also allow analysing the scenario and changing the process technologies based on the environmental impacts.
LCA, an opportunity to improve
Another aspect of sustainability to bear in mind is the product’s lifecycle, i.e. the evaluation of all the environmental impacts generated from the time the raw material is extracted until a product’s “end of life.” In our industry, the analysis of the life cycle of leather and tanning chemical products can represent a new tool to support competitiveness and sustainability of companies, as explained by Federico Brugnoli, owner of SPIN 360 (Sustainable Progress & Innovation Network), a consulting firm specialising in the development of sustainability projects in different markets, including the entire leather supply chain.
In the Life Cycle Assessment, the assessment of environmental impacts crosses the boundaries of the company for the first time to consider the entire production chain. In order for the analysis to be correct, a shared core element is needed, which can be the “Product Category Rules” (PCR). The first PCRs were formulated in Val di Chiampo six or seven years ago on the initiative of the territory that led to the development of the Guidelines that were subsequently used by everyone. These were later combined with those prepared by the European Commission. The study of the lifecycle aims at calculating and assessing the environmental impacts generated for the production of a unit of a specific product. In the case of leather, all the impacts refer to one square meter of leather, ready to be shipped to the gates of the tannery.
The various stages of the cycle contribute differently to environmental impacts and relatively to the Carbon Footprint (the potential of global warming), today we know that the major players are breeding and the production and consumption of chemical products and heat and power. The drafting of a LCA, SPIN 360 starts from a step-by-step analysis of the process that aggregates the data obtained from each of the business activities into indicators. These indicators are then translated into software and modelled by dedicated algorithms. All the different aspects are assessed with a detail that allows obtaining an extreme pulverisation of the data. The aim is to provide high-quality information to tanneries that want to study the lifecycle, so that they can take specific actions to improve the environmental impact along their entire supply chain, basing their decisions on real data.
The voice of the Fashion House
After providing these stimuli, the AICC Conference wanted to involve – for the sake of completeness – also the brands, in the person of Alberto Lampis, from Hugo Boss Ticino, whose presentation (“Strategy for eliminating or reducing hazardous chemicals in the supply chain”) highlighted the needs of the Fashion Houses. In order for a product to arrive on the market “safe” (i.e. without risks), strong and effective collaboration is needed between all suppliers along the entire supply chain: those who have the know-how are the vendors of bags and shoes, their supplier (the tannery), the supplier’s supplier (who produces chemical products), the supplier of the supplier’s supplier (who prepares the chemical bases).
As it continues down the chain, the control becomes more and more complicated. And if there is no collaboration in these phases, after a few stages the entire sense is lost and it is not clear why the Fashion Houses need certain parameters. It is not enough, for example, to comply with REACH: all the brands are international, they sell their products around the world. This leads to the request for RSLs because in some countries the restrictions on some chemical substances are lower than those recommended by REACH. Even the pressure of the NGOs at times leads to requests that seem excessively limiting.
To address this issue, Hugo Boss is committed to a “Road to Zero” by 2020 for some critical substances; however, this path is only viable if the whole chain is aware of the brand’s objectives.
A matter of trust
In order to have a synergistic path between the customer and supplier, it is necessary for brands to always place their trust in tanners and chemists, as underlined by Ernesto Pisoni, AICC President at the end of the conference. The supplier wants to meet the needs of companies, as effectively and efficiently as possible. But the common goals can only be achieved by trusting the claims made by the supplier, in times that, nevertheless, may not be assured. And probably with some difficulty, but with the knowledge that the commitment is there.