A future for chrome?

Dr Kerry Senior, Director, UK Leather Federation (UKLF)
Published:  18 August, 2017

Uncertainty is one of the defining features of the world today, whether it concerns the consequences of Brexit, the impact of climate change or our security in an increasingly volatile political environment. Uncertainty can cause those affected to struggle to take action or to become excessively risk-averse. Uncertainty can also lead to speculation, which, in the absence of other views or evidence, can further limit the ability of those affected to act. 

No one in the leather industry can fail to have noticed the increasing concerns among some sectors of the leather trade, around potential for the formation of chromium VI in leather. Chromium VI is regulated by legislation, including the REACH Directive, and restricted by numerous commercial standards. Of the proscribed chemicals that may be found in leather, chromium VI is the only one that is not put there, deliberately or otherwise, by the tanner. The regulation of chromium VI, and the theoretical potential for it to appear spontaneously in leather, has led to increased awareness of the issue in the sector’s customers and greatly increased levels of testing. Customers want certainty about the products they are buying and the potential for chromium VI to form in leather (and the resulting uncertainties about its presence) has inevitably led to risk management strategies, and in particular, more testing.

Speculation about chrome’s future

It has also led to speculation about the future of chromium as a tanning agent, with suggestions that the days of chromium-tanned leather are numbered. Such speculation will only fuel the current uncertainty. As such, UK Leather Federation surveyed the UK tanning industry, to gather the opinions of those directly involved in the production and sale of chromium-tanned leather. The results of this survey were unequivocal; none of the respondents had seen or predicted a decline in sales of chromium-tanned leather, or had lost customers because they were manufacturing Chromium-tanned leather. Furthermore, it was also reported that major customers were moving back from wet-white to chromium-tanned leathers.

A common theme in the responses was that alternative tannages simply cannot deliver the same properties and performance characteristics as chromium tannages. Chromium-tanned leather is more “nourished”, rounder and fuller than wet-white, and has superior performance with regard to tensile strength, shrinkage temperature, lightfastness, etc. Metal-free tannages also leave much to be desired in areas such as availability, robustness, and cost.  For this reason, even where customers in various sectors look to move away from chromium, they often reconsider, as the alternatives have negative implications for the quality of their products. This is not say that there is no place for metal-free tannages; leather production is about imparting the properties desired by the customer to the leather, and tanning systems are not always interchangeable when it comes to providing specific product performance. 

However, there is no room for complacency. While the results of this survey were largely positive, it must be acknowledged that the UK industry is relatively small and as such, the results may not be representative of the wider leather market. That said, UK tanners export, without issue, to over 80 countries around the world. Through COTANCE (Confederation of European Tanners’ Associations) and the ICT (International Council of Tanners’), the UKLF is seeking to widen the reach of the survey and gain a comprehensive world view. At the time of writing, only a few responses had been received from outside of the UK, but included major tanning nations. The responses mirrored those from the UK; no decline in production of, or customers for, chromium-tanned leather, and no sense that this would change. It must also be noted that some respondents reported increased interest in chromium-free leathers and a growing perception that chromium should be avoided, with the division in opinion being marked by differences in client sectors.

Not abandoning chrome tanning

Nonetheless, it is clear that UK tanners, currently have no intention of abandoning chromium, and that their leathers remain the first choice for their customers. Thus far, this view has been repeated by tanners in other nations. Chromium-tanned leathers meet the demands of our customers where alternatives do not. To move away from Chromium would impair the performance of leather for many applications and could see customers looking to alternative materials.

It is imperative that the industry continue to promote the value of chromium tanning, in terms of performance, environmental sustainability and a rational, risk-based view of the potential for harm due to the presence of chromium VI. It would be naïve to pretend that there are no concerns around chromium in leather but more so to believe those concerns cannot be addressed. We should also support the further research, such as that being carried out at the ICLT in Northampton, which intends to address an uncertainty that is rarely discussed, the reliability of the test method for chromium VI.

While more must be done to address and allay the real concerns surrounding the use of chromium-tanned leather, it undoubtedly has a future. In 1897, Mark Twain famously wrote that, ‘The report of my death was an exaggeration…’, in response to newspaper stories that he had died during a visit to London. Reports of the demise of chromium-tanned are also an exaggeration but it is up to the industry to ensure it stays that way.

Contact Dr Kerry Senior by email: kerrysenior@uklf.org

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