The Sustainability Report 2021 of Unic – Italian Tanneries was presented during Lineapelle. A report that – as explained by Luca Boltri, deputy director and Fabiana Orlandi, sustainability specialist – has been providing an insight into the commitment of the Italian tannery for 19 years in pursuing the sustainability of products and processes for the benefit of the entire supply chain and the final consumer. “Everyone talks about sustainability – said Boltri – but being able to measure it with objective data is what matters”. Hence the new environmental balance of the tanning association that summarises the impacts and results obtained by the sector on the basis of the Sustainable Development Goals defined by the UN in the 2030 Agenda and the European Green New Deal, the ambitious European action plan for achieving climate neutrality by 2050.
Let’s say immediately that on the basis of the indicators that have been analysed since 2003, the Italian tanning industry has made significant progress, in particular in terms of resource consumption with an average 37% decrease in energy consumption, 8% less used chemical products and 15% less water. Also CO2 emissions decreased (-3% compared to 2019). The purchase of energy from renewable sources, confirmed with Guarantee of Origin certificates, covered an important 72.9%. share in 2020. CO2 emissions fell by 3% on 2019.
Also data on waste is interesting: 77.4% of tanning waste is recovered and valorised. In 2020, the production of waste was on average about 1.46 kg for each square metre of leather produced. Only a small part of it (2.4%) is classified as dangerous and mainly concerns packaging. The recovery processes of tanning waste are an interesting application case of the circular bioeconomy. Hydrolysates are obtained from organic biomass that comes from leather processing giving multiple applications and re-uses in different production cycles, from agriculture to pharmaceuticals. The Unic report explains that 2020 was a year marked by the Covid-19 pandemic, which hit the Italian tannery hard, causing a serious economic contraction, with significant drops in terms of turnover (-23%), production (-16% ) and exports (-25%), while keeping employment substantially stable (-0.6%). But it was also a year in which a strong acceleration towards the ecological and digital transition and, therefore, towards the necessary change to intercept its objectives, has been defined. “Transparency and reporting of the impacts and initiatives undertaken, with an approach that considers the entire value chain, are and will be growing strategic elements in the present and future development of Italian tanning, which has so far proved being capable of evolving in the economic, social and cultural context in which it operates, but which is increasingly called upon to take into account the changing needs of stakeholders”, explains UNIC.

CHALLENGES TO 2030

The circular model of the Italian tannery is already at an advanced level, in particular relating to the recovery organic material waste, but it can be further increased. “In the coming years, also in line with the objectives of the national strategy for the circular economy, it will be important to evaluate the possible recovery and reuse of water and to identify a treatment process of the sewage sludge that can enhance its material and energy content”, explains the Report.
“For the ecological transition, but also for the digital one, the role played by the synergies of the supply chain and the ability of the entire value chain to pool research and innovation will be central. Chemistry and technology, in particular, will play an important role in rationalising the use of resources, in identifying innovative manufacturing processes, also by enhancing the use of bio-based chemicals and reducing the use of hazardous substances”.

MARKET TRENDS
According to initial estimates, the Italian tanning industry ended 2021 with a 13.2% increase in production and 22.5% in turnover over the past year. However, it must be emphasised that 2020 was an extraordinary year: in spring, tanneries had to suspend production during the first Covid19 wave and in the following months the demand suffered severe slowdowns. Comparing the results with the pre Covid 19 period, emerges however a persistent decline (between 5% and 20% compared to 2019 depending on the economic indicators). The sector has therefore not recovered pre-pandemic levels in 2021, although it appears to be on the right track. One of the biggest recent concerns is the prices of raw materials, i.e. raw hides (which grew by an average of 20% in 2021, with peaks even above 50%), chemicals and energy. These are accompanied by increases in services, such as purification and logistics. The real risk is that it can severely inhibit the timing and intensity of recovery, with serious consequences on financial sustainability.

In the picture, Luca Boltri and Fabiana Orlandi of UNIC

The circular model of Italian tanning industry
Consumption indicators of energy, water and chemicals by Italian tanning sector since 2003