Looking beyond tomorrow21 May 2002
Italian-made leather and leather products continue to be the major force they have always been on the global stage. Although countries such as China and Brazil have become huge suppliers of leather products, they still cannot compete with the Italians in terms of fashion, innovation and value added products. Italian-made leather represents virtually a third of all leather sold in terms of value (Table 10) and two thirds of all leather produced in Europe is from Italy (Table 8). The Veneto tanning region, centred around Arzignano, accounts for over half of all Italian leather and more than a third of the total European Union leather produced by value. Table 8 shows that the leather tanning sector in Italy is responsible for more than 30,000 jobs directly and many more in allied industries. The tannery cluster around Santa Croce Su'll Arno in Tuscany also represents 19% of all leather produced in the European Union. Despite the large numbers, the Italian market share is gradually being eroded by stiff competition from lower cost, higher volume producers in Asia and Latin America. According to Table 5, volumes of finished leather are anticipated to fall during 2002 following a decline in 2001. 'Last year was bad and many of the tanners are still feeling a little depressed. 'We expect the second half of this year to be better and hope to see an upturn following Lineapelle this month', a spokesperson from UNIC told Leather International. 'The leathergoods and garment sectors are doing business but it has been tough for the footwear and upholstery producers', they added. Consumer demand in the US and Japan has been a contributing factor to the slowdown in sales of Italian leather and leather products. The problem was then compounded by the terrorist attacks in the US and the collapse of the Argentine economy. Coupled with the falling consumer markets in many of the world's wealthiest countries, tanners were forced to pay very high prices for raw materials last year following the foot and mouth disease outbreak. The combination has led to a flat market. To stave off the increasing competition, UNIC have embarked on a number of long-term initiatives aimed at keeping the Italian leather sector at the forefront of fashion and technology. Through the European Union, UNIC are involved in a number of research projects together with their European partners. A summary of the research projects is given on the next page. The investment also includes technical training and UNIC have become involved in a project near Turin. Baldracco tanning school This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Baldracco tanning school located close to Turin in northern Italy. Baldracco is the oldest institute of its type in Europe and was built during a period when the Turin area was a major tanning centre in Italy. However, over the years, tanning in region has declined significantly and the numbers attending the school have fallen to an uneconomic level. Through a collaboration between the tanners association and the Confederation of National Associations of Tanners and Dressers of the European Community (Cotance), the technical school at Baldracco is being given a new lease of life. UNIC have become involved with the school before it became extinct. They are financing part of the scientific research at the school in collaboration with Cotance, the industry and local government, and it is hoped that the centre will become a catalyst for the formation of stronger bonds between the tanning industry and academic institutions such as universities. Presently, Baldracco is solely for Italian technicians but UNIC intend to open the school to foreign tannery technicians and technical managers. So far, Euro25,000 has been earmarked for updating the equipment and facilities at the school and the total investment is worth around Euro125,000. Other financial donors include the regional government in Turin and a number of leather industry related companies located in the Turin area. Exhibitions Lineapelle, which is organised by UNIC, is now the most important leather fair in the world. This year, they expect the fair to be as busy as usual with exhibition space at a premium. According to UNIC, a number of companies from Asia and eastern Europe are trying to participate this year but they will not be able to unless additional space becomes available. 'We have had many requests but we have to be selective as we cannot take everyone on the waiting list', said the spokesperson. As well as organising the Lineapelle fair in May and November, UNIC have also organised a trend selection for twenty leading tanneries. The selected companies' preview their latest fashion colours and designs to selected leading designers and buyers behind closed doors. The 'Antiprima' trend selection takes place in Milan a few weeks before Lineapelle to give the major buyers an advanced preview of the latest leathers on offer. 'Many of the higher level companies who work closely with the fashion houses or in niche markets are working well and we are finding that it is those companies who are continuing to remain successful in Italy', said the UNIC spokesperson. 'Those companies which produce medium quality volume leathers are finding it very difficult to compete with manufacturers in the Far East.' Research and technology transfer In 1989, UNIC formed Conciaricerca Italia Srl to promote and conduct scientific research in the tanning sector. The company have a board of directors which consists of leading business people from the tanning sector. Since their conception, the company have overseen a number of projects aimed at surveying and researching substances and equipment used in the tanning process, better techniques for improving waste treatment and disposal, training and technology transfer. The initiative at Baldracco forms part of their work. The company form part of a European network of businesses and organisations working towards a more sustainable leather industry in Europe, where Italy is the dominant country. A significant part of the funding is supplied by the European Commission and includes the support of Cotance. Currently, there are about 40 tanneries and their representatives in Europe involved in the projects. In addition, there are around 20 research institutes including universities and private bodies such as chemical and machinery makers. UNIC are involved in the following European Commission sponsored collaborative projects which began in 2001: CRAFT - Water free dyeing: water free retanning, dyeing and fatliquoring of leather. An innovative eco-friendly automated process to increase European tannery competitiveness. Ongoing research has led to the formulation of a new range of dyes which have low reactive compounds and, therefore, can colour the leather in a low float reducing water cost and effluent load. EUREKA - Mastrit - Skin 2002: automatic system to catalogue, select the quality, brand and identify leathers in the tannery. CRAFT - Tannose: measurement and diagnosis of odours in the tanning process. Ink-Jet Leather processing: innovative technologies for dyeing and finishing. Partners include a large German chemical company who are investigating new eco-friendly ink and dyeing compounds. A new piece of equipment is also being constructed to convert the theory into practical technology. Bioflotation: a process aimed at reducing the organic load of wastewater from tanneries. CRAFT - Plasmaleather: cold plasma treatment for a new water repellent leather. The plasma is applied in the gaseous state. CRAFT - Tansludge: decontamination and value added use of tannery sludges with chromium recovery. CRAFT - Hide traceability: new technology for marking and automatically tracing hides along the production line. Allows the processor to qualify that the animal was slaughtered humanely and may help limit the future spread of contagious diseases such as FMD. Results of each of these projects are to be given in open meetings and presentations throughout the life of each project. However, commercial confidentiality will be respected and partner companies are able to patent their ideas. One such conference/workshop organised by UNIC took place at Baldracco in March. The meeting was organised by Cotance and was supported by the European Commission in the Framework of the European Social Dialogue - DG Employment and Social Affairs.