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.

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Leather: A natural high-tech material

To add further weight behind the march towards the use of more renewable carbon into leather, a recent study by Autenrieth, Walker, Buckenmayer and Escabros from Germany headquartered leather chemical maker Trumpler has compared the renewable organic content of commercially produced leathers and their corresponding synthetic materials. A summary of this excellent study has been published in the September/October 2020 edition of ILM magazine (Leather: A natural high-tech material, pages 67-72) and it is well worth a read.

The authors report that due to the natural collagen content that leather exhibits, it has an intrinsically high content of renewable material. In Trumpler’s study leather comes out very well, while the commercially available synthetics feature very low renewable carbon contents. When you think of the natural animal origin of leather and how skin is made during the life of an animal it’s obvious that the substrate that makes leather is inherently from a renewable resource. The study concludes; “Leather is a unique, natural and beautiful material and we can acknowledge and promote it as such. The aim of the present contribution is to support this claim with clear and provable facts”.

Tanners should shout out loud about their renewable carbon substrate and work towards processing hides and skins with greater levels of commercially available bio-based chemicals. It can help blow away the ‘cruelty-free’ myth which the anti-leather propagandists throw at the industry as leather is a long-lasting material from a by-product of the food industry which has an excellent renewable carbon content.

Martin Ricker, Content Director, ILM

martin@internationalleathermaker.com