Sustainability of leather is a central challenge for the industry, which is called to reduce its environmental impact and make more ethical choices. Beyond misinformation and criticism, we demonstrate how leatherworking is (and can be even more) sustainable.
The relationship between leather and sustainability
Let’s start with a fundamental premise: contrary to what many believe leather is in fact sustainable, as the overall tanning process fits perfectly into a model of circular economy. Why can we say this? Because the tanning industry recovers, as its primary raw material, a byproduct of the food industry, namely bovine and ovine animal hides.
To be precise, over 99% of Animal By-Products (or ABPs, according to EU Regulation 1069/2009) from the food industry are recovered by tanneries, thus avoiding disposal in landfills. According to the 2022 UNIC Sustainability Report:
- globally, tanneries recover approximately 1,700 km² of raw bovine and ovine leather per year, roughly 8 million tonnes.
- disposing of such a volume of leather as waste would produce 5 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses, according to estimates from Unido Data.
In addition, it is important to consider other key aspects:
- Leather is a biodegradable material, highly durable and resistant, elastic and easily repairable, with a long lifespan that allows for intensive use.
- Synthetic alternatives, often derived from non-renewable and environmentally polluting sources, have a shorter life cycle and degrade more quickly.
- Waste from the tanning production can be repurposed in other sectors and applications, while synthetic and plastic waste is less easily reusable.
Unlike the mass production of synthetic and plastic fabrics, the tanning industry continues to make significant efforts in reducing its impact and optimizing circular sustainability, where waste from one industry becomes raw material for another.
The requirements of a sustainable tannery
The growing attention to the sustainability of products and processes is transforming tanneries, as well as environmental and social standards. There is a strong commitment to reducing water and energy consumption, implementing recycling and protecting workers’ rights. A tannery can be considered sustainable by meeting some essential requirements:
- Careful management of wastewater: water is the second most important raw material in leather production. Investing in wastewater treatment, purification and recovery systems increases efficiency and reduces water footprint.
- Use of renewable energy sources: automated tannery machines, powered by renewable sources and energy cogeneration systems, can achieve significant reductions in emissions and environmental impact.
- Supply chain traceability: ethical and responsible management of raw materials is what makes leather truly sustainable, through the application of certifications to verify the traceability of raw and semi-finished hides.
- Reduction of polluting substances: treating effluents, reusing purified wastewater, recovering sludge generated by plants and the recycling of chromium used in tanning processes ensure the sustainability of leather production.
- Transformation of leather waste: scraps, trimmings and leather offcuts can be used in agriculture as biostimulants and fertilizers, in cosmetics as collagen and in the food, pharmaceutical or paperboard industries.
- Workplace safety: compliance with all environmental and labor regulations ensures the health and safety of employees, guaranteeing maximum prevention of accidents and occupational diseases.
- Certifications and collaborations: a sustainable tannery is certified according to recognized environmental and social standards and, at the same time, collaborates with institutions to promote innovation and bring sustainable development.
What is eco-friendly sustainable leather
How can we define the sustainability of leather? Sustainable leather results from a production chain that integrates technological innovation, ecosystem protection and consideration for working conditions.
We can outline some main characteristics of sustainable leather:
- Transparency and traceability: the supply chain must be entirely traceable from start to finish. Farms must ensure animal welfare and use the most ecological practices, following ICEC traceability certifications.
- Responsible production: work stages in the tannery must take place with environmental and ecosystem protection in mind, using innovative technologies and methods that significantly reduce the impact of consumption and waste.
- Respect for labor: the dignity and valorization of tannery workers, the ethical choices made by individual companies and the decision of consumers to purchase leather products made ethically and responsibly.
In short, leather can be sustainable when it comes from traceable, highly efficient tanning production processes aimed at minimizing waste and reducing environmental impact, with an investment in ethical values and advanced technologies.
GER Elettronica for sustainable leather production
The solutions provided by GER Elettronica make leatherworking processes more efficient and easily traceable, perfectly embodying the principles of sustainable tanning.
GER Elettronica control and management systems for leather production allow for the collection of a vast amount of data on each leather batch throughout all of the tanning processes. This provides operators and managers valuable information to optimize consumption, reduce waste and minimize the environmental impact.
Furthermore, GER Elettronica technologies for digitizing tanning processes ensure the complete traceability of leathers, a fundamental requirement for sustainability. This is achieved through data analysis collected during leatherworking and the ability to obtain functional insights to enhance efficiency and reduce ecological footprint.
This is in fact our mission: an approach based on measurement, quality control, data collection and artificial intelligence, which represents a valuable resource to guide tanneries towards increasingly circular models and sustainable leather production.