The Confederation of National Associations of Tanners of the European Community (Cotance) and the European union IndustriALL organized in mid-April in Valencia the conference Towards a Zero Impact of the Tanning Industry in Europe. With this meeting, the aim was to share different business and labor strategies to make the tanning industry a more sustainable and respectful sector with the health and safety of its workers. Among other topics, those attending the conference spoke about how to reduce the carbon footprint, as well as actions aimed at minimizing the accident rate in workplaces. During the day, a couple of visits were also made to two Spanish tanneries.
The event was attended by, among other actors from the tanning industry, representatives of Cotance such as Manuel Ríos and Gustavo González-Quijano; Carmen Arias, general secretary of the European Confederation of the Footwear Industry (CEC), and Anna García, director of the Spanish tanning employers’ association Acexpiel, as well as members of the IndustriALL and UGT-FICA unions and the European Safety Agency and Health at Work (EU-OSHA).
The tanning industry is often regarded as one with very high water consumption because historically, it has been. But great strides have been taken to change this, and still many companies are striving to do better.
The benefits of using less water for tanning can be more than just the obvious. They can also mean fewer chemicals are needed, which, of course, will reduce the amount of residual chemicals and pollutants that need to be treated.
The treatment of water is also key. If the water that is used is cleaned well enough, it can be returned to the environment meaning that any losses are marginal – the water can be reused by the tannery or to irrigate crops.
The Sustainable Leather Foundation
The Sustainable Leather Foundation (SLF) is one of the organisations working hard to assess water use by tanners in order to work to reduce it. There are 32 tanneries across the world who are SLF partners, and their water use falls well under the benchmark that was established to measure it.
There is a whole raft of measures tanners are taking to lower their water consumption.
Reducing the number of washing processes for each hide
Using fresh hides which do not need salt removal
Using more efficient machinery
Reusing and recycling water
Reducing chemical use or using biodegradable chemicals
Processes have been refined so much recently that the amount of water used has reduced by 35% in the last 25 years. And, with the reuse of water and the refining of techniques, that reduction is continuing.
How many cows are killed to make a luxury bag? The correct answer is none.
According to a latest report from the NGO World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), leather is entirely a by-product of the meat and dairy industries. Consequently, leather manufacturers are crucial players in stopping the deforestation of forests. This study supports and acknowledges the need to use leather as a by-product and also clearly demonstrates the importance of considering full life cycle analysis of leather.
«Leather is one of the oldest forms of recycling known. There are many benefits to using leather as a by-product of livestock production», WWF explains in its report. «Leather also has a role to play in fighting deforestation». However, the NGO points out that the leather industry can play a leading role in the fight against deforestation of our forests, mainly by pressuring ranchers to engage in sustainable grazing and livestock practices. The sale of raw hides can be an economic incentive for farmers. For this reason, according to the WWF, the tanners should use their influence over them to put pressure on them and thus prevent them from continuing to destroy natural ecosystems for the intensive farming of cattle herds.
«Leather is an important by-product of livestock production with a rich history. Its durability and position as a luxury item make it a highly desirable material for consumers. The increase in meat consumption globally means that hides will continue to exist on the market and, if not used for leather, they are often wasted, creating methane while sitting in a landfill», the WWF report concludes. «The leather industry has an opportunity to intensify and strengthen its efforts to eliminate deforestation and improve the beef supply chain through the additional income that hide sales bring to producers. Companies that purchase leather can use their influence to drive change and accelerate the protection of habitats at risk», warns the study. «Leather also has a role to play in the fight against deforestation».
This article tackles the following misrepresentations:
MYTH: It is cruel to make leather from animal hides and skins.
FACT: The hides and skins are a by-product of the meat industry and only become available after slaughter.
MYTH: There are better uses for the hides and skins.
FACT: There are some other uses, but for thousands of years, people have found making leather to be the best way to make the most of the material available. In many parts of the world, the only other realistic option would be for the material to go to waste, which would give meat companies two big headaches, a financial one because of lost revenue from tanners and because of the cost of disposal, and an environmental one because of waste management practices in many parts of the world.
The volume of hides and skins coming as a by-product from the global meat industry is enormous. Figures suggest the meat industry generates around 275 million cattle hides a year, along with 540 million sheepskins and 425 million goatskins. The leather industry buys up much of this by-product, which otherwise would mostly go to waste, and transforms it into one of the most versatile and attractive materials on earth.
The weight of the hides and skins the meat industry casts off each year is likely to be around 8 million tonnes for cattle hides, 375,000 tonnes for sheepskins and 300,000 tonnes for goatskins. This means that the meat industry generates almost 8.75 million tonnes of waste per year in the form of animal hides and skins.
Disposing of this waste would cause severe problems for all cities and countries where animal slaughter and meat processing takes place, but specific to the developing world, it would exacerbate an already serious municipal solid waste situation. Municipal solid waste almost doubled in the first decade of this century to reach 1.3 billion tonnes in 2010. It is expected to reach 2.5 billion tonnes a year by 2025. At the moment, around 15 million of the poorest people in the world scrape a living by picking out from municipal solid waste things they will try to sell. The presence of large volumes of perishable waste material from the meat industry could have serious consequences for their health.
In parallel, the meat industry needs to consider how much money it would have to spend to manage its hides and skins in the same way as other waste, an increasingly costly business. The UK, for example, imposes a landfill tax that will reach £94.15 per tonne in April 2020, an increase of 11.5% on the 2016 figure. At these rates, putting its by-product into landfill in the UK would cost meat companies more than £800 million per year, without factoring in transportation or labour costs. This cost would, in all likelihood, be passed on to consumers, making meat more expensive and less accessible.
This article argues that the leather industry does the meat industry and society at large a great service by taking waste material and converting it into leather for shoes, accessories, clothing and upholstery. Tanners and brands selling finished products made from leather should remind their customers of this in the face of questions about the sustainability of the leather industry.
In December 2019, the European Commission published a 24-page document to explain a set of policy initiatives it is calling The European Green Deal, which has the aim of “resetting” the organisation’s commitment to tackling climate and environment-related challenges. The document describes such an undertaking as “this generation’s defining task”.
It wants the European Union (EU) to continue to be a prosperous body and for its economy to grow, but it wants this growth to become “decoupled” from the use of new resources. Renewable resources and the reuse of resources already in circulation will be fine, as long as they can be produced or recovered in sustainable ways.
In fact, this is precisely what the future looks like: using what we can grow and recover to make the products we use to live, keeping things for a long time, repairing them when we need to, passing them on for someone else to use when we no longer can or want to and, eventually, taking the product back and recovering the materials it’s made from and giving these a second, third, fourth, fiftieth life. Materials must go round in circles; as little as possible must go to waste.
These are global questions, of course, which the European Commission acknowledges. It says in the December document that the EU will “use its influence, expertise and financial resources” to convince companies and governments around the world to join it on a sustainable path. As “the world’s largest single market”, the EU believes it can set standards that will apply across global value chains. The Commission has said it will use its economic weight to shape international standards that are in line with its environmental and climate ambitions.
In the Green Deal, it presents an initial roadmap of the policies and measures that it wants business leaders, politicians and people in the EU and around the world to take to contribute to the objectives of achieving climate neutrality by 2050 and of helping the United Nations meet its Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. It proposes to set up a “carbon border” so that products entering the EU from external countries may incur a carbon tax if “differences in levels of ambition” persist in their countries of origin. Therefore, cutting corners in seemingly low-cost outsource manufacturing locations will prove to be a false economy and companies that continue to pursue this practice may find that they cannot sell their products in the EU because the penalties in place will make these imports less affordable than alternative products made in the correct way. The correct way is circular.
Action needed now
The European Commission believes a move to a circular economy is an essential part of its plan. It says it could take 25 years to transform supply chains from the linear model of make-sell-use-throw away and instead make them circular, with manufacturers taking by-products from each other to keep adding value and nothing going to waste. But it insists that action needs to take place now so that, by the target date of 2050, we can have sustainable ways of making and consuming things.
“From 1970 to 2017, the annual global extraction of materials tripled and it continues to grow,” the Green Deal document says. “About half of total greenhouse gas emissions and more than 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress come from resource extraction and processing of materials, fuels and food. The EU’s industry remains too linear and dependent on a throughput of new materials extracted, traded and processed into goods, and finally disposed of as waste or emissions. Only 12% of the materials it uses come from recycling.”
In the document, the European Commission says it wants to support and accelerate industry’s transition to the circular economy and the Green Deal contains a new circular economy action plan. Part of this will be to take action to stimulate markets, inside and outside the EU, for circular products, encouraging the companies that make these products to create new, green jobs. It will support the circular design of all products and will prioritise reducing and reusing materials ahead of recycling them.
This circular economy action plan will also include measures to encourage consumers to choose reusable, durable and repairable products, handing a competitive advantage to companies whose products or materials meet that description. It says new business models based on renting and sharing goods will play a role “as long as they are truly sustainable and affordable”. The Commission says it will tackle false green claims, vowing that companies engaging in green- washing will end up red-faced, named and shamed.
Public authorities, including the EU institutions, are to lead by example and ensure that their procurement is green. Legislation and guidance on green public purchasing will follow. Billions of euros are at stake here. Companies that verifiably meet the green criteria will be the ones winning the contracts.
Circular economy horizons
It has much to say about waste, making it clear that if waste cannot be avoided, “its economic value must be recovered and its impact on the environment and on climate change avoided or minimised”. Here, too, there will be new legislation, including targets and measures for tackling waste generation. In parallel, the Green Deal document makes clear, “companies should benefit from a robust and integrated single market for secondary raw materials and by-products”.
At the start of this new decade, in which progress is essential if the global economy is to hit its 2030 and 2050 targets, all of these ideas seem sound and well thought- through. It will be obvious to readers of World Leather magazine that, in leather, the European Commission already has in front of its nose a clear example of a production sector that can already meet all of its circular economy requirements. Leather and the circular economy are a perfect match. And yet, the December 2019 document explaining The European Green Deal makes no mention of leather. Zero.
We can say on the one hand that this is disappointing but it’s no surprise, in truth. The European Commission published an earlier document at the end of 2015 called EU action plan for the circular economy. This one made no direct reference to leather either. As in the 2019 document, though, there are lots of indirect references that show how well leather ties in with this concept. Both European Commission documents fail to make the connection between leather and the circular sourcing, circular production and circular consumption arguments they put forward as a model for the future. It’s obvious that the responsibility for establishing those connections lies with the leather industry.
For this reason, World Leather has decided to begin 2020 with a new Leather and the Circular Economy section. We will provide a platform for tanners, leather chemical companies and finished product manufacturers to share their opinions and experiences on this subject. For millennia, skilled people have been taking a by-product from meat and, rather than let it go to waste, have turned it into a material whose versatility, durability, naturalness, sensuality, renewability and beauty knows no parallel. To use leather in shoes, furniture, automotive, aviation and other forms of transport, interior design, handbags or apparel is to choose a raw material that might, otherwise, have gone to waste. It is a material that you can repair and recover for reuse at the end of a product’s useful life, preventing waste again and avoiding the need to extract new resources for the products we buy. It’s the circular economy material par excellence and it’s time more people realised that.
Our Leather and the Circular Economy section will include two types of articles: some covering the thought leadership on the circular economy that people across the leather industry are demonstrating, others covering case studies from companies that make or use leather to showcase their circular stories. The aim is to keep publicising examples of the leather industry’s circular economy credentials.
To make the connection clear, we have picked out ten aspects of the way the best in the business make and use leather and tied them in with the policy details that have come to light so far in the documents from the European Commission. If asked to show why leather is an ideal example of a circular economy product, anyone in the industry will be able to point to these ten reasons. We are pleased to share these ten criteria in the infographic above and we are delighted to offer our first circular economy thought leadership and circular story articles in the December 2019-January 2020 issue of World Leather.
The European Green Deal, the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) and the EU Industrial Strategy have identified the textiles ecosystem, including the leather industry, as a priority sector in which the EU can pave the way towards a socially fairer, carbon neutral, circular economy. An EU Strategy for textiles will support it in this transition, repairing the short-term damage from the Covid-19 crisis in a way that also invests in the long-term future of the ecosystem.
Against this EU policy background, the leather sector’s social partners, COTANCE and industriAll Europe, agree that they must further invest in protecting jobs in the leather sector and creating new ones by driving competitive sustainability and building a fairer, greener and more resilient European tanning industry. They will address key issues identified in their 2016 Joint Manifest and subsequent Roadmap towards 2025 (Joint Multiannual Work Programme) in a series of social dialogue projects.
The latest of these projects will address two key issues in the tanning sector: (1) safety at the workplace and (2) the carbon footprint of leather. The project partners will collect the necessary data on both topics through surveys and official information, as well as interviews and other appropriate channels, to provide the sector’s operators and stakeholders with intelligence on both project strands.
The initiative, implemented in 7 countries covering over 80% of the sector’s companies and workers, will be developed through social dialogue. Two international workshops will be organised on the selected topics, printed and video material will be disseminated in a dedicated EU-wide campaign, and a Final Conference, scheduled in Brussels in 2024, will conclude the project, with a presentation of the results.
One of the main accusations that is usually made against the tanning industry by its detractors is the intensive use of a resource as scarce and precious as water. To produce leather, abundant water resources are required, mainly to clean animal skins of mud, manure and hair. However, it is not usually taken into account that the leather industry is one of the manufacturing industries that has made the largest investments in recent years to purify its effluents and give a new use to the water used.
In particular, the European leather sector is a pioneer in the application of innovative practices for the recovery of its effluents. As the Confederation of National Associations of Tanners of the European Community (Cotance) points out in its latest statement released in collaboration with the Spanish Tanning Association (Acexpiel), the environmental practices of the European tanning industry are «accredited by well-known audits in the sewage treatment». According to Cotance, “in Europe, wastewater from tanneries is treated under very demanding parameters. Its effluent treatment plants demonstrate great technical excellence.”
An example of this is the Italian plant for the treatment of effluents from the clusters of tanneries in Tuscany, Veneto or Campania, which has become an international benchmark for the management and treatment of water in industrial districts of tanneries. Another example is the Portuguese tanning district of Alcanena, which separately collects baths from partner tanneries to recycle residual tanning agents. In Spain, we have the example of the Igualadina de Puració i Recuperació treatment plant, which treats the water from twenty-eight tanneries in Igualada (Barcelona), as well as part of the local urban wastewater and that from other industries. At the end of an innovative biological system, water is obtained in conditions comparable to domestic wastewater, which guarantees an adequate return to the environment. Splenda Quality Leather is one of these tanneries.
Due to its unique characteristics, this treatment plant in Igualada has been the object of international recognition and one of the cases highlighted by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), as well as by the Global Water Intelligence report, a benchmark for the industry of the water.
As Cotance concludes, European tanners are “perfectly aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 (clean water and sanitation)”, and stresses that they are not stopping in their pursuit of “higher sustainability standards”.
Leather industry organisations from across the world have called on the UN Climate Change Conference Forum 2026 (COP26), which will be held in Glasgow, to recognise the role that leather and other natural fibres can play in tackling climate change. The Leather and Hide Council of America (L&HCA) and Leather Naturally from the UK are among the organisations that have adopted a manifesto campaigning for a natural fibre route to sustainability.
The document highlights the role natural materials can play to limit climate impacts of consumer materials, especially when compared to synthetic, fossil fuel-based competitor materials.
The manifesto states: “The world needs materials that are sustainable, renewable, readily disposable and most importantly, do not add to the burden of atmospheric carbon.
“Natural fibres, such as leather, cotton, wool, mohair, alpaca, silk, hemp and mycelium, are part of the biogenic carbon cycle and as such are comprised of carbon that has been in the atmosphere for a millennia.”
“These readily available raw materials, when ethically and properly produced, are an important replacement for fossil fuels, reducing the need for its extraction and retaining more carbon in the ground.”
“Furthermore, at the end of life, properly produced natural materials will biodegrade, limiting their impact and mitigating harmful emissions, such as microplastic pollution, associated with the synthetic materials that they replace». Read the full text of the manifesto here.
The future of the European textile, apparel, leather and footwear industries (known by the acronym TCLF) is inevitably going to be increasingly green and digital. This was the main conclusion reached at the meeting held on July 4 in Brussels (Belgium) between representatives of the European employers’ associations for footwear (CEC), tanning (Cotance), textiles (Euratex) and the European union IndustriAll with members of the European Commission.
The meeting resulted in a joint declaration requesting more aid from the European Union so that the TCLF sectors can be «more resilient, sustainable and digital» and be able to «promote sustainable production and consumption in the internal market of Europe». The goal is to ensure that by 2030 all textile, footwear and leather products marketed in the European Union are «durable and recyclable». In addition, this strategy includes new design requirements for textile and leather products, clearer product information and a digital product passport, all of which are measures to address the green transition and discourage the destruction of unsold or returned items.
For their part, the TCLF consortium partners asked the European Commission for more funding, legal incentives and support to help the European textile, footwear and leather sectors decarbonise their production and become more circular, as well as initiatives to ensure that workers have adequate training for the future.
For his part, the general secretary of Cotance, Gustavo González-Quijano, points out that “leather is the best example of a circular economy product, since it is the result of recycling an unavoidable waste from meat production. In doing so, European tanners create wealth and jobs for the entire value chain. The green transition? It is our DNA! And leather can and will be even more sustainable, but this must be done hand in hand with our regulators and stakeholders.”
The European social partners of the textiles, clothing, leather, and footwear (TCLF) industries agree joint demands to ensure that the textiles ecosystem can become more resilient, sustainable, and digital as set out in the EU textiles strategy. This involves tackling strategic dependencies, appropriate funding, incentives and support to help the European TCLF sectors decarbonise their production and become more circular, and initiatives to ensure that workers have the right skills for the future.
Employers’ and workers’ representatives for the European TCLF sectors, CEC, Cotance, Euratex and industriAll Europe recently met with the European Commission to discuss how to ensure a successful green and digital transition of the EU Textiles Ecosystem. During the meeting, national and European social partners adopted a JOINT STATEMENT setting out clear demands for the TCLF sectors to become more resilient, sustainable, and digital.
The joint statement follows the European Commission’s EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles and the launch of co-creation process towards a transition pathway for a more resilient, sustainable and digital textiles ecosystem (TCLF sectors). The transition pathway recognises the need to build a resilient textiles ecosystem, based on innovation and global competitiveness, noting that the European TCLF sectors face tough global competition, and that measures are needed to encourage sustainable production and consumption in Europe’s internal market.
The strategy aims to ensure that by 2030, the ecosystem’s products placed on the EU market are long-lived and recyclable, while the industry moves from a linear to a circular business model. Initiatives in the strategy include new design requirements for textiles and leather products under the Eco-design for Sustainable Products Initiative, clearer information on products and a Digital Product Passport, measures to tackle greenwashing, and action to discourage the destruction of unsold or returned articles.
As a response, the TCLF social partners have agreed on specific joint demands to ensure that the ecosystem can become more resilient, sustainable, and digital. These include decisive action by Member States and the EU to tackle strategic dependencies, appropriate funding, sound metrics, legal incentives and support to help the European TCLF sectors decarbonise their production and become more circular, and initiatives to ensure that workers have the right skills for the future.
Gustavo Gonzalez-Quijano, Secretary General of Cotance, said that “Leather is the best example of a circular economy product, as it is the result of recycling an unavoidable residue of meat production. In doing so, European tanners create wealth and jobs for an entire value chain! The “Green Transition”? It’s our DNA! And leather can and will become even more sustainable, but this needs to be done hand in hand with our regulators and stakeholders.”
The European TCLF social partners agreed to continue their good cooperation including during the co-creation process towards a transition pathway for a more resilient, sustainable and digital textiles ecosystem (TCLF sectors) noting the importance of quality sectoral social dialogue
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