The annual concurrence of Lineapelle and Simac Tanning Tech took place under unusually warm conditions in Milan, so the main thoroughfare between the two shows at the Rho Fiera Milano exhibition centre was a broad mix of fashion statements, from thick scarves, wool jackets and sturdy leather boots, to box-fresh sneakers and short sleeves.

Once inside either fair, though, the overall takeaways were less confusing. Tanning Tech’s theme of ‘Tomorrow is now’ brought in a record 322 exhibitors displaying products including the latest in digital leather printing, cutting and all things industry 4.0, so that machinery is more interconnected, intuitive and smarter.

The approximately 19,000m² space allocated to exhibitors was pushed to capacity and Fulvia Bacchi, director general of UNIC, the Italian Tanners Association, was encouraged by how the show got under way, even though it was only midway through the first day. Good attendance and busy stands, then, but whether or not that translated into orders remains to be seen. However, there was a silver lining going into the shows – especially from Lineapelle’s standpoint – in that the Italian tanning industry experienced an increase of 3.4% in terms of value for 2018, according to UNIC.

Tanning Tech’s theme of ‘Tomorrow is now’ brought in a record 322 exhibitors.

In addition, organisers at Tanning Tech spelled out three main reasons to visit: the fact that it is the largest exhibition worldwide for machinery and technology for the footwear, leather goods and tanning industries; its alignment with Lineapelle, and that show’s vast gathering of companies for materials, components and accessories for global fashion and luxury goods; and the fact that it all takes place in Milan, one of the global capitals of technology, design and fashion – and during Milan fashion week on top of it all.

Assomac Servizi CEO Amilcare Baccini had also confirmed that the space allocated to exhibitors had been filled and no more was available.

“We still have applications from manufacturers eager to come to Milan, but we are all sold out,” he said before the event. “We have come up with alternative solutions that will yield more space but they can’t be implemented for this edition.”

Seeing that longevity, sustainability and environmental concerns are very much at the forefront of leather production now, companies are being held to account for best practices and how investment can help them remain competitive, even though the margins couldn’t be tighter.

From drum manufactures and cutters to spraying machines and chemical companies, the unifying message was that leather itself was the greater cause to champion, and all are working to devise innovative solutions to prioritise efficiency and a reduction of any environmental impact.

“Companies turned towards high-performing, safe and eco-friendly technologies some years ago, and will keep pursuing them,” said Gabriella Marchioni Bocca, Simac Tanning Tech president ahead of the show. “Indeed, within the framework of sustainable production processes, the leather-processing sector has grasped the need to adopt eco-friendly means and machinery. Given this drive, and with its commitment to transparency, Assomac has developed the ‘Supplier of Sustainable Technologies’ project, of which the Green Label is the first concrete step.

It is a voluntary scheme in which a third-party company certifies the carbon footprint (CFP) of machinery manufactured by member companies.

Competition and communication

The market isn’t “brilliant”, as Luca Boltri, vicedirector general, UNIC, said, but, at the midpoint during the second day, he was happy overall with Lineapelle. In the bigger picture, though, he knows there are powerful forces working against leather and that beyond the pitchfork-wielding pressure groups are the trends moving away from leather.

“Substitutions, especially in footwear, are a big problem for leather,” he said. “These trends affect demand unfavourably from the footwear sector and the trend seems to worsen.”

A lot of this is down to basic business survival, especially in the athleisure sector, but a lot of it is driven by ill-founded, agenda-driven information about leather that maligns it. But luxury and the top brands are the main demand for the Italian tanneries.

“Everyone is trying to catch orders from these kinds of clients,” added Boltri.

And where automotive was once a bedrock of reliability, it is now a big concern.

“There has been about a decade of uninterrupted growth with leather and all the main automotive brands using leather, but some are slowing down,” he explains. “Less car production overall is one factor, and the increase of substitutions and misleading information about leather [is another].”

Companies turned towards high-performing, safe and eco-friendly technologies some years ago, and will keep pursuing them.
Gabriella Marchioni Bocca, Simac Tanning Tech president

What it comes down to is that the real aspect of sustainability is counter to what people’s perception of leather is. Some people might understand the truth about leather, but they see the trends, and synthetics are better for the bottom line – even if they are worse for the environment and a company’s green credentials. But they hijack the term leather.

“We need to concentrate our communication efforts on that,” Boltri exclaimed. “We need to unite and promote our material. I have the impression that if they could drop the use of leather entirely while maintaining the prices of their final products with other cheaper materials, they would immediately.” This is the unfortunate state of leather in the 21st century, regardless of the hypocrisy. It is too easy to be pessimistic.

$24.5 million
Toscana Machine Calzature (TMC) and ItalProgetti’s agreed investment in two leather factories in Moshi in the Kilimanjaro Region.
The East African

However, by the end of the fair, the social media channels started lighting up with thoughts on both shows. Nick Winters, MD of the Nick Winters Group, for instance, at least showed some optimism, saying that while markets seemed to be moving sideways, premium cow hides are up. And that is something to feel good about.

Into the workshop: the circularity of Italian leather sustainability

On day two of the show, contained in one of the oblong conference rooms, a broad panel discussed how the Italian tanning industry represents a reference model for the circular economy. The packed room heard about how Italy takes this very seriously, and with a modern and avant-garde industrial approach, new systems can transform and then upcycle a once by-product of the meat industry into materials of quality and considerable beauty. And by anticipating the European strategy on bio-economy, the Italian tanning industry has been able to go beyond its sectoral horizon. A real symbiosis with the entire value chain has originated by creating the conditions for its production wastes to become valuable raw materials for other industrial chains.

UNIC Italian tanneries, in partnership with Confindustria and Lineapelle, organised this workshop to focus on how the circular economy is evolving, and why it is one of the most interesting topics linked to the sustainability of materials for fashion, furniture and cars.

During this event, the supply chain presented consolidated solutions and best practices towards minimising waste, while interacting with stakeholders on future methods and strategies.

Moreover, in order to demonstrate the concrete sense of this circular approach, the event also offered a gallery of products and accessories made by companies in the supply chain using processing waste.