The Italian tanning sector chooses sustainability

Leather tanning is an Italian excellence and now it’s also green

Leather tanning goes green. The Italian tanning sector, one of the Italian excellences in the textile-fashion-clothing industry, has chosen the path of eco-sustainable production. Increasingly stringent environmental regulations, increasingly attentive citizens and international customers, who are increasingly demanding in terms of sustainability standards, have made the choice of eco-sustainable production an urgent necessity. This trend is common to the entire leather tanning sector. According to data from Unic, (National Union of the Tanning Industry), the industry association that is part of Confindustria moda from 2018, Italian tanneries invest an average of 4% of their annual turnover in sustainable projects. In 2016, 4.4% of turnover was spent on sustainability, compared to 1.9% in 2002. More and more international brands, from fashion, design, to automotive, consider it necessary to have a sustainable business strategy and in this sense the tanning sector has been able to play in advance. Hence, increasingly advanced eco-sustainable plants and processes, investments in research, projects for integrated environmental management, training and environmental product certifications, as well as programs to reduce the use of water (-20% in 2016 compared to 2003), energy (-32%) and chemical products (-4% compared to 2007) for the treatment of wastewater, for the reduction of atmospheric emissions, for the recovery of waste (76% recovered today).

A costly but indispensable choice to remain on the market for a sector whose production value, again according to Unic data for last year, came close to 5 billion euros with exports of 3.6 billion, which has about 1,200 companies employing just under 18,000 people and which, in terms of quantity, produced 128 million square meters of finished leather and 10,000 tons of sole leather.

In support of the tanning sector, in order to strengthen its leadership at European level and to ensure its place among the main players at world level, there is also a partnership agreement between Enea, the national agency for new technologies, energy and sustainable economic development, and the Stazione Sperimentale per l'Industria delle Pelli (SSIP), a research organization of the Naples and Vicenza Chambers of Commerce, which since 1885 has been supporting all companies in the tanning industry with training, research and development, environmental certification of products and processes, analysis and consulting. Its mission is the promotion and development of innovative techniques in order to improve international competitiveness in terms of production quality, technological development and environmental sustainability to the benefit of the entire leather tanning chain.

The identification of innovative production processes with reduced environmental impact, integrated with an approach aimed at circular economy, is what is provided for in the agreement that will last three years. Several activities are foreseen by the agreement, including research on advanced materials for leather processing and the use of new materials from production waste, by-products and sludge with a lower environmental impact than the current ones, with particular reference to the Life Cycle Assessment and the "carbon footprint" of the products.

There are many tanneries in Italy that already represent excellence in eco-sustainable research, mainly concentrated in four large districts, Campania, Tuscany, Veneto and Lombardy.

The tanneries of the Tuscan district of Santa Croce sull'Arno, a national flagship where two purifiers are active for the recovery of chlorine and some by-products, have certifications related to product traceability and safety and invest resources in Poteco, the technological tanning pole, a structure wanted by the entrepreneurs of the sector for training and research.