Project developers :Purchasing / Quality
Partners: Tanners / Suppliers

Reducing environmental impacts during leather tanning

The product categories concerned

Context and description

Tanning is the process which permits animal skin to be transformed into leather by dehydrating it to render it rot-proof.

To tan leather, tanning agents of mineral origin (namely chrome), and sometimes of plant origin, are used. In addition, this process requires vast quantities of water to soak the skins ("river work") and to create tanning agent solutions or dyes.

Working the leather is therefore a stage of the product life cycle which has a big impact from an environmental viewpoint. It therefore has its rightful place in an eco-design strategy even if it often occurs beyond rank 1 suppliers in the supply chain.

IMPLEMENTATION

Average

Complexity of implementation

Low

Estimated economic gain

Low

Human means

1 year
2 seasons

Implementation timeframes

STAGES OF IMPLEMENTATION
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  • It is firstly essential to conduct an assessment of the leather sector. This includes an analysis of leather purchase volumes : What is the proportion of leather purchases in the company's business and which products are concerned (in % of purchases, products or sales), the main purchasing modes (proportion of purchases in terms of finished products, share of leather materials directly purchased or selected) and the level of traceability (% of known tanneries, for finishes and main tanning and tanning processes implemented).

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  • This first review can be completed by a quick assessment of the actions already underway to reduce the various environmental impacts associated with tanning: has the company put in place a compliance mechanism with the REACH ruling or a more proactive substance management approach ? What proportion of tanneries possess environmental guarantees (i.e. certification, recent audit or any other concrete initiative in terms of environmental prevention) ?

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  • Guaranteeing the safety of leather products is essential. Europe, the United States and several Asian countries have developed restrictive regulations aiming to ensure the absence of hazardous substances in textiles and footwear (e.g. : REACH, Prop. 65). Leather products being particularly exposed to these regulations, increased vigilance is necessary: it is essential to put in place a monitoring system, to draft eco-toxic specifications (Restricted Substance List - RSL) duly validated by suppliers and to carry out an adequate number of self-checks (and/or base yourself of product certifications such as Oeko-tex).

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  • Defining a strategy to reduce the environmental impacts associated with tanning means going beyond regulatory obligations with objectives and working lines which correspond to company strategy (the leathers with which the organisation is looking to work for example, or the level of ambition expressed in terms of environmental responsibility).

    A first step, which is accessible to the majority of companies, is to obtain credible environmental guarantees from tanneries such as ISO 14001, LWG (Leather Working Group) or STeP (less widespread) certification. Strategic suppliers can be invited to obtain this type of guarantee (allow for approximately 12 months for LWG for example) or the company can choose to work exclusively with certified tanneries (See Tool 1).

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  • Certain companies can also choose to develop their own checklists for tanneries, via the introduction of environmental audits. Generally conducted by independent experts, these visits permit the compliance of sites with local regulations as well as the solidity of impact prevention measures relating to water, hazardous waste management and other pollution to be checked.

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  • Develop a good level of traceability which includes tanneries carrying out river work and tanning itself (i.e. not only finishing). This stage is essential to effectively steer the environmental initiative. Even when the company sources finished products, tannery origin must be known for the 20/80 leather products and the volumes resulting from eco-responsible tanneries must be the focus of careful monitoring. Given the significant environmental stakes associated with tanning processes, this type of monitoring is becoming standard within companies with a significant leather market.

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  • The most advanced companies aim to establish their own environmental standards : tanning techniques, forbidden chemical products, limits to be respected, water management policy…They also develop MRSL lists (Manufacturing Restricted Substances List) which aim to define the nature and limits for authorised incomings for tanning, basing themselves on initiatives such as the ZDHC programme (See Tool 2). These technical standards must also be shared with suppliers and must be based on check processes. They can be drafted in conjunction with suppliers of chemical products intended for tanning.

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  • Using sourcing to locate suppliers which make use of specific tanning processes can also be envisaged. This can initially consist in putting together a material/use template in order to allot a specific tanning process (mineral, plant or mixed) to every leather product typology, then carefully assessing the processes implemented (thanks to environmental studies) to select those which are the most ecologically efficient.

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  • The most ambitious stakeholders can adhere to an innovation logic by selecting innovative tanning processes (which use less water and / or chemical products) or "alternative" materials (See Cheat Sheet: Leather). Within this logic it is important to conduct comprehensive quality tests to ensure that the product corresponds to the requirements set out in the specifications (resistance to tearing, humidity, abrasion....)

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Key indicators

- Implementation of legal monitoring and updating of eco-toxic standards

- Proportion of known tanneries

- Proportion of certified tanneries

- Proportion of "eco-responsible" leather products or purchases

Watch point

Other stages within the leather industry can have significant environmental impacts such as: breeding (risk of deforestation depending on origin), finishing (use of chemical products) and blending (use of glues and solvents). The industry is also exposed to significant stakes in terms of labour conditions and animal welfare.

Beware of popular misconceptions, although it does not use heavy metals such as chrome, plant tanned leather is not free of environmental impacts.

 

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