Les Ateliers

Insight: The leather industry (Part I)

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The leather industry, the Hollywood starlet of the manufacturing industry. Mired in scandals, clouded in mystery, often imitated, never duplicated. Let’s have a closer look.

In ‘Part I’ we’ll start by taking a quick view of the industry in Europe, the types of tanning and take a snapshot of the regulatory framework which exists today.

It is a global industry, and as such, standards at which quality, health and environment are respected are not held equally high across the board – and that is us being very polite. We’ll begin this series with having a closer look at the European leather manufacturing/tanning industry as it is the one we work with all the time and are thus most familiar with.

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Before we continue: We encourage you to do your own research. The information presented is authentic to the best of our knowledge. What follows is generated for informative purposes, but not to be perceived as professional advice in regards to health or any other field. This is not a science journal by any stretch.

Dolce Italia

Avrai tu l’universo, Resti l’Italia a me

“You may have the universe, but let Italy remain mine”

The above quote from Attila (Opera by Verdi) is certainly applicable when discussing the leather industry: Italy is the sector’s Goliath in Europe. They are followed by Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, and the UK which make up the main players in the EU leather industry.  Italy has approximately 10 times more tanneries compared to the second biggest player (1400 vs 140). Unfortunately, the number of tanneries located in the EU keeps growing smaller.

An important note if you haven’t managed to see one in real life: Tanneries, for the most part, are not the huge factories that come to mind to some (although some are indeed massive). Most in Europe are small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and are generally family businesses with a long tradition.

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There’s a tiny fraction of them which specialize in vegetable tanning. And you guessed it,  we work with a few of those tanneries that master the art of vegetable and bark tanning.

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Tanning 101

There are two main methods used in tanning leather on a large scale today. One is Chrome tanning (which uses heavy metals and is thus a pain on the environment), and another is Vegetable tanning which does not use heavy metals. Chrome tanning covers over 95% of all leather, including the leather used to make your car seats etc. Vegetable tanning is but a small fraction of leather in circulation. Why? Vegetable tanning is much more costly and time consuming than chrome tanning. In a world of fast fashion & price conscious consumers, it is a wonder that vegetable tanning still exists today.

Mythbusting

One quick intermezzo on Vegetable tanning that I think should be mentioned: On many webpages and e-shops across the interwebs, you will find statements saying that Vegetable tanning is environmentally friendly or neutral. By that I understand “not harmful to the environment”. No matter how much we would love that to be true, this is simply a false statement. It is certainly a great way to tan, but it is not environmentally neutral. There is still waste that needs to be treated correctly in order to minimize (not neutralize) the impact on the environment. Not to mention, tanning in itself is a very water intensive process, regardless of the method used. And I’m sure you wouldn’t want to recycle that into drinking water after it’s been used throughout the tanning process. Sorry to burst that bubble.

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Housekeeping rules

The most basic of housekeeping rules for the tanneries in the EU (I stress the fact that this is for the EU and by no means a global minimum standard, unfortunately!) are stipulated as follows:

  • Careful selection and control of substances and raw materials (e.g. quality of hides, quality of chemicals);
  •  Input-output analysis with a chemical inventory, including quantities and toxicological properties;
  • Minimisation of the use of chemicals to the minimum level required by the quality specifications of the final product;
  • Careful handling and storage of raw materials and finished products in order to reduce spills, accidents and water wastage;
  • Segregation of waste streams, where practicable, in order to allow for the recycling of certain waste streams;
  • monitoring of critical process parameters to ensure stability of the production process;
  • regular maintenance of the systems for the treatment of effluents;
  • review of options for the reuse of process/washing water;
  • review of waste disposal options.

Note that the above housekeeping rules are the absolute MINIMUM requirement for the tanneries here. The tanneries in Italy & France we work with (and not only those) tend to go beyond these requirements. This is in part linked to the fact that they are mostly small family businesses, they take pride in their work & traditions.

You really get what you pay for

Imagine for a minute, that you have a small garden of your own. A vegetable garden. And on the border of that garden, there’s a little stream. Now imagine your car required an oil change and you have two choices: Pay a (hefty) fee and bring your used Oil to the recycling center. Or don’t pay a fee, and just discard it in that stream of water. What do you do?

When you see a leather garment at a suspiciously low price for no apparent reason, know that it means that corners were cut and that this likely has extremely negative consequences for both the workers, (exotic) wildlife & environment. In Europe the tanneries are heavily regulated and large scale studies are published on an EU level to ensure standards are upheld and efficiencies are made to lessen environmental impact and ensure worker’s safety. That said, there will always be exceptions to the norm, both positive and negative. We can say in good conscience that we make great efforts in searching the tanneries that excel at the positive end of the curve.

What’s next

That’s all for for Part I folks! In the next part we’ll look at what all that ‘recycling’ is all about in the Leather Industry 🙂

Categories: Les Ateliers

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