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Leather can become fertilizer for organic farming and other industry eco-initiatives

By Jennifer Mason


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The return of a slightly wrinkled aesthetic will emphasize an item’s use. Exhibitor: PrimorPelli S.p.A. Image: Jennifer Mason

In a look ahead to Summer 2023, a future that is beautiful and fragile was in the forecast at Lineapelle’s New York leather fair. Human impact on the earth and its ecosystems has been so outsized that the severity of our effect has forced us to face our own fragility in recent years. But the theme intends for optimism—that moments of fragility can lead to renewed strength, spark creative solutions, and construct a new narrative. That new narrative for the leather industry revolves around sustainability, reducing harmful chemical waste, and working together with all stakeholders in the supply chain to ensure a proper environment for animals and workers—all topics explored at this year’s show.

Textile Trend Report

Goatskin, an inherently water-resistant and resilient leather. Exhibitor: Polo Trade S.R.L. Image: Jennifer Mason

A presentation at the show offered that materials for the season will be delicate and need to be handled with care. Transparency will not only mean fabrics that are sheer and netted but also, a clear view into how those fabrics are supplied to us. In the wait for technology to find sustainable solutions, materials will be rediscovered in their original appearance and purity. Finishing treatments should leave little to zero impact on the planet and allow impurities and natural imperfections from the raw materials to shine through and highlight individuality. Creases from wear and the return of a slightly crumpled or wrinkled aesthetic will emphasize an item’s use and, hopefully, reuse. Differences will be a strength, paving the way for custom pieces, artisan details such as embossing, embroidery, and perforation, and inclusive prints that intermix. Warm and sensory colors will evoke courage and romanticism, like the yellows of sun on skin that compliment the neutral tones of natural cotton, leather, linen, and silk. Contrast berry blues and purples will also have a moment this season with a preference given to certified coloring agents. Pleats and three-dimensional effects will be desired to inflate materials and allow for the freedom of movement. There will be space for experimentation without limits and constraints imposed by mass production and the market.

Taking care of something also means protecting it, like performance fabrics that can regulate body temperature and guard against environmental hazards. Materials need to stretch and be stain resistant, wind and waterproof. Textiles should be durable and versatile enough that they are suitable for different uses and move from clothing to furnishings to accessories and vice versa. The preservation of objects and skills will be celebrated and passed on to others.

The Innovation of a Circular, Chrome-Free Tanning Method

Ecotan suede. Exhibitor: Silvateam. Image: Jennifer Mason

Vegetable tanning is emblematic of the spirit of transmissible tradition in northern Italy, where artisans have developed the craft over generations. An Italian producer of tannins and plant-based extracts that was in business before chrome tanning was widely used—as well as an exhibitor at this year’s Lineapelle New York—Silvateam describes tanning as the procedure of chemically treating rawhides to make them stronger, more flexible, and resistant to decay. Vegetable tanned leather is considered higher quality and able to achieve more unique characteristics. It is more expensive because it takes longer to produce, up to sixty days in some cases, and requires a niche expertise to understand how temperature and environment affects the outcome.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, vegetable tanning was the main method used to create leather before chrome tanning, (a process termed “wet blue” because of the blue color produced by the chrome tanning agents), was introduced in 1858. Close to ninety percent of leather products today are tanned using chromium salts, as this is both cost and time efficient and the results are more colorfast. The problem is that the main compound used in leather tanning, trivalent chromium (CR III) that is considered nontoxic, can oxidize into a more hazardous form, hexavalent chromium (CR VI), under mismanaged environmental conditions. Hexavalent chromium can cause allergic reactions on skin from wearing leather and is considered a carcinogen when inhaled regularly during manufacturing—an occupational hazard more common for textile dyers than leather tanners. Solid tannery waste and sludge that contains hexavalent chromium, when disposed of illegally, can seep into the water supply and cause cancer clusters in entire towns surrounding those sites. Moviegovers may be familiar with Julia Roberts’ Oscar-winning performance as Erin Brockovich, the activist instrumental in exposing Pacific Gas & Electric for negligently dumping the hexavalent chromium used to fight corrosion in plant cooling towers into unlined ponds in Hinkley, California. According to a 2020 report on chromium concentrate recovery collected from tanneries in southern Poland, tannery waste can also change the chemistry of ground soil, which results in toxic metals introduced into the soil environment. The report estimates that 3.5-4 million megagrams (Mg) of solid waste is generated worldwide annually from the tanning industry.

In an effort to operate more responsibly and meet the targets of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, some tanneries are looking to revisit a natural approach but with more sophisticated formulations. As the process of tanning itself is designed to preserve hides, that in turn, makes them non-biodegradable. Silvateam, in partnership with tanneries in Italy and around the world, has created a chrome-free, proprietary formula called Ecotan that is sourced from chestnut and quebracho woods, tara pods and gallnuts. The natural tannins combined with harmless man-made additives, according to the Ecotan leather website, produce warm, rich tones and offer a circular approach to leather making. The intention behind Ecotan is that when the leather is exhausted and has reached its end of life, it can be broken down through a process called hydrolysis and transformed into fertilizer, regenerating the soil for organic farming. “Our company is promoting and developing the culture of green chemistry, a different way to tan leather sustainably and to close the loop, which means when we take something from nature, we return to nature,” the Ecotan Project Director, Alessandra Taccon, told FashionUnited. Silvateam has also partnered with an Italian company, Fertilizzanti Certaldo, that will be the one to accept used Ecotan leathers and turn them into fertilizer.

Technical Leathers that offer both Femininity and Strength

Washable lambskin. Exhibitor: Tanneries Pechdo. Image: Jennifer Mason

Tanneries Pechdo has been in the leather business since 1900. The French company, based in Millau, specializes in technical leathers—the kind used by firefighters and military members as PPE to protect against all of the elements. Over the last few years, Pechdo, under the direction of Caroline Krug, entered the fashion market to offer the same advanced functionality with a softer appeal. “I have a team of engineers and we develop new, innovative technology to have leathers with very technical characteristics,” she said while pointing out the differences in texture of cowbelly and lambskin. “For the fashion world, it took us two years to develop this machine-washable lamb. When it goes into the machine to be washed, it stays the same size, the same handfeel, same color—no color bleeding.”

The soft and light leather is suitable when trends call for patches on sleeves or a pocket trim on a t-shirt, and that was the intention. “Most fashion clients now need to have leather that can work with textiles. The idea is that people don’t have to go to the dry cleaner, which is expensive and not very planet-friendly. It’s easier if you can just wash your clothes on the delicate cycle, like you would do with a sweater,” Krug explained. And sewn as gloves, you don’t risk the damage you normally would in the rain.

The tannery keeps its suppliers close to home to limit carbon emissions with rawhides coming from French livestock.

The Difficulty of Tracing Leather Raw Materials

Sensory colors will evoke optimism. Exhibitor: Dani S.p.A. Image: Jennifer Mason

Dani Leather comes from Arzignano, Italy and works with the automotive industry as well as with fashion partners. At Lineapelle, they exhibited an offering of zero impact leathers that are also tanned with vegetable extracts during the retanning phase and feature a metal-free coating. The company, too, keeps production locally in an effort to offer more guarantees about the sustainability of what they create. “We have the traceability system certification for where our raw hides come from, ninety-three percent of our hides are from Europe,” the Business Development Manager, Lucia Battistin explained. Once in possession of the hides, “Everything is carried out in Italy. So, from rawhide to the finished leather, we process everything in the Arzignano district.” She noted their company’s “Leather from Italy, Full Cycle” certification from ICEC, a certification institute that specializes exclusively in the leather sector. ICEC has also granted Dani’s leather the ICEC TS SC 410 regarding the traceability of the supply chain of raw hides. The description on ICEC’s website states that this certification for “products systems in tanneries” includes an analysis of a wide range of products of multiple origin and that the traceability of the hides upstream of the tannery is mapped. “It’s worth emphasizing that leather comes from upcycling a byproduct of the food industry and this is the first reason why we should always look at leather as the sustainable option,” Battistin stated.

An example of various certifications. Photo: Jennifer Mason

Third-party certifiers like ICEC, as well as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and The Leather Working Group (LWG)—who have also certified Dani Leather and tanneries that work with Ecotan—are mainly what are relied upon to verify statements like that and provide any ethical assurances about elements of the sourcing supply chain. For the leather industry, the path from an animal’s birth, to the slaughterhouse, to the tannery, and its experience being transported—often between different countries—is an incredibly fragmented and opaque system even to those operating within it. Maurizia Contu who represents UNIC, the Italian Tanners’ Association that works to protect the industry, noted in an online panel discussion about the sustainable management of raw materials presented by Lineapelle last year, that there is no legal obligation for the different entities to supply relevant information to the tanneries on animal health and welfare. “We can rely on the commercial documents for the sanitary certificate related to the meat supply chain. We can rely also on many private initiatives that are more and more implemented by tanning suppliers, because we have sensibilized our suppliers that we need this information in order to guarantee to our clients certain aspects of our production,” she shared. “Nevertheless it can be really complicated to collect [the information] in a bottom-up approach.”

Other efforts in traceability, Contu mentioned, include a multi-stakeholder project led by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), an ambitious project that involves many operators and stakeholders in the supply chain with the aim of defining a shared model of traceability and transparency in the garment and footwear industries using open source blockchain technology. “This project has come to a very important phase, they are defining the pilot project for leather so it is really an important initiative,” she said last March. Additionally, the Deforestation and Conversion-Free leather project (DCF), a collaboration between UNIC, ICEC, and the National Wildlife Federation, was announced after the COP26 conference in November 2021 to trace and ensure that the leather supply does not come from or contribute to deforested areas.

Lineapelle Milan will take place February 22-24 at Fiera Milano Rho.

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