Tanners should seek a renewable carbon path

ILM Comment
Published:  21 August, 2020
Credit: Karsten Würth

It is sad to be constantly reading and writing about the landfilling of precious hides and skins all around the world. This “new normal”, to use a post-Covid-19 world phrase, for the tanning industry had actually started happening well before the pandemic struck. But now it has accelerated as demand for all materials including leather, falls and countries dip in and out of national or regional lockdowns

What is perhaps the most frustrating thing for the leather industry is that global consumption of meat, on which hides and skins are these days a low value or even worthless by-product, has remained relatively stable during the coronavirus pandemic despite some obvious health and safety challenges inside meat processors across the world.

One of the many great things that hides and skins have as a natural foundation for making leather, is that they are a source of renewable carbon, which makes the waste or landfilling of these materials all the more disappointing when the animal rights and vegan lobby have pushed and tricked the consumer towards buying products made from materials derived from non-renewable, fossil-fuel derived carbon. In doing so, this has, in my view, actually caused more harm to the planet; while most of us continue to eat meat, we should use the hides and skins rather than throw them away. As I have posted on social media many times over recent months, buying a material derived from a cactus, for example instead of genuine leather will not save a single animal’s life. Those that love using the phrase “cruelty-free” are inadvertently bringing more plastics and synthetics into the world and the legacy of these materials does not make them cruelty-free in my opinion. Quite the opposite in actual fact.

Renewable carbon

Earlier this year, ILM hosted a webinar and a podcast featuring Michael Costello, ESG Director, for global chemical producer Stahl. In both of these interesting online free-to-access platforms, he skilfully outlines in an easy-to-understand way the role of renewable carbon, as well as the use of more bio-based leather chemicals in leathermaking. The podcast is available on our “View from the Top” series, and the webinar is now free-to-view via the ILM website video section or on YouTube. I urge readers to watch and listen to both as Costello clearly outlines the benefits for the tanning industry to move towards the use of more renewable carbon sources, as well as some of the more technical challenges that chemicals companies such as Stahl are facing in developing renewable carbon based chemicals for the whole leather manufacturing process.

What is more encouraging is that many of the industry’s leading leather chemicals makers such as Zschimmer & Schwarz, TFL, Smit & zoon, Trumpler and many others, along with Stahl, are offering tanners a broader range of commercially available bio-based chemicals that are derived from the waste of other industries such as food, agriculture, wood pulp and paper (see ILM July-August 2020 print/digital edition of ILM for a round-up of the latest leather chemicals). This trend can only continue to grow, and some the world’s leading tanners have not only been asking for such new technologies from their suppliers, but are slowly introducing this new generation of products in their beamhouse and post tanning operations. The carbon footprint of leather is not only coming down but it is also coming from more renewable sources.