Environmental Sustainability of Importance to Italian Leather Industry
Leather tanning is one of the oldest industries in the world, whose products find application in numerous fields like fashion, furniture design, car manufacturing, and aviation, among others. The established leader in this market on the international level is Italy, with its major tanneries concentrated in three regions: Veneto, Tuscany and Campania. The leather products made in Italy are exported worldwide in more than 100 countries and are recognized as a symbol of quality, luxury and tradition.
Tradition is one of the pillars of Italian leather industry, where leather processing still pays great attention to every production step, using craft techniques passed on from generation to generation.
Another aspect of this industry is technological innovation. Maintaining leadership in such a competitive market requires constant scientific research and advanced modern technology.
It is not just about quality dyes and sophisticated elaboration techniques; it is crucial to guarantee the environmental sustainability of this key industrial sector through technological and organizational innovation in the environmental field.
The production process
Leather processing is divided into several stages that take about a month, at the end of which the by-product of the food industry gets transformed into a noble and precious material.
After the preliminary control of the raw hides, the so-called beamhouse operations take place: hides undergo a series of mechanical operations and chemical treatments in drums aimed at rehydrating and unhairing the hides. Then the stages of fleshing and splitting prepare them for tanning.
Tanning, the process that gives name to the whole industry, consists in treating the hides in wooden drums with tanning substances that transform the raw fibers into a durable product. Tanning is followed by mechanical operations such as sammying, splitting and shaving.
Afterwards the hides go through the processes of retanning, dyeing and fatliquoring carried out in drums, that give the leather hides specific properties such as fullness, texture, softness and color.
Once dyed, the skins get dried using different techniques depending on the required characteristics of the final product (aerial chain, vacuum, toggling). The dried hides get softened by a staking machine, that stretches and lubricates the leather. At this stage the hides are called “crust.”
Finishing is the last stage at which the desired qualities of leather get enhanced. Various operations like buffing, dry milling, embossing and spraying take place. A film of colors, protective resins, waxes and filming agents is applied to the leather that acquires its final look and properties.
The environmental impact of leather processing can be potentially very negative due to the use of various chemicals in the tanning process The problem is particularly strong in the countries where the industry regulations are loose and the manufacturers use low-cost and highly polluting production methods.
Italy is leading the way in the implementation of leather tanning processes that are less polluting for the environment and for the workers in the factories. Here are some of the R&D and innovation areas for environmentally sustainable leather processing:
- sulphide-free unhairing and metal-free tanning with low water consumption
- water-free automated retanning and dyeing
- optimized logistics and production systems along the whole supply chain for processing fresh raw hides
- extension of biotechnology application in leather production
- recovery and optimization of process by-products in order to obtain new materials for agriculture and industry
- transparent and scientifically consistent communication regarding the environmental impact and efforts done to avoid or reduce it.
Moving towards verified sustainability
The tanneries’ commitment to environmental sustainability can be confirmed by some important international product certifications assumed on a voluntary basis. Some of the most relevant are:
- the Carbon Footprint of Product (CFP), in compliance with ISO/TS 14067, identifies the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions released during the whole process of leather production, from agriculture to the delivery of the final product to a client.
- the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), based on ISO 14025 standard, is a voluntary international certification aimed at providing relevant, verified and comparable information about the environmental impact of an activity gathered by examining the whole production chain of a tannery.
- der Blaue Engel, established in Germany since 1978, is one of the most well-known environment-related labels in the world; this label is only awarded to products and services which, from a comprehensive perspective, are of considerable benefit to the environment, consumer health and occupational protection.
- for Italian tanneries which obtain the certification “Leather from Italy – full cycle,” the national standard UNI 11239 guarantees that leather is entirely made in Italy, from the raw hide stage till finished leather.
As the tanning industry needs natural resources, chemical products and energy, environmental sustainability becomes a fundamental aspect of leather production. Companies strongly committed to ecological principles should be a norm in the industry in order to ensure long-term economic, environmental and social sustainability.
Guido Zilli is innovation, sustainability and communication manager at Dani Spa (www.gruppodani.it), an Italian tannery based in Arzignano and a leading producer of leather for the automotive industry, upholstery, footwear, leather goods and accessories. It employs more than 600 people and has a turnover of more than 200 million euros.
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