Historically, Flekkefjord has prospered on its natural resources. Herring fishing was the main industry of the town for many years. Indeed, in the 1750s, Flekkefjord was the most important herring export port in Norway. The unusual tidal conditions in Flekkefjord allowed ships to move in and out of the port at all times of the day.

This, accompanied by the abundance of local timber, enabled the town to become a major exporter of timber to Holland; in the nineteenth century most of Amsterdam’s houses were constructed with oak and pine from Flekkefjord. The availability of plenty of local oak and water also meant that Flekkefjord was once a popular area for tanning; in the mid 1800s there were five tanneries operating in the town. Aarenes Lrfabrikk AS is the only one remaining now.

Managing director, Andreas Moeller, comes from a long line of Swedish tanners. But like so many these days, their family business struggled to meet the local demands for effluent discharge and closed in 1983.

Andreas then moved to Flekkefjord to take the reins at Aarenes Lrfabrikk AS.

Initially, the tannery produced sole leather from elk hides. Whilst local oak may have been used, much of their vegetable tanning process utilised quebracho which they extracted themselves from trees that they imported from Argentina. So, trees went both in and out of the port at Flekkefjord!

By the mid 20th Century, they had begun processing shoe upper leather which eventually developed into the shrunken grain leather that Aarenes are now famous for. Like most tanneries in the Northern hemisphere, Aarenes have managed to survive by finding niche markets. Their shrunken grain leather is a popular choice for up-market leathergoods manufacturers such as Hermes and Dooney & Burke and is also used in footwear.

The tannery is well ordered and bright and has a good clean beamhouse incorporating mechanical handling devices. Hides are split in the lime and the splits sold for gelatin production.

With experience, they have found that the smaller weight range of ox hides (17-24kg) are best suited to their particular shrunken grain process. This may be due to tightness of the fibre structure or maturity of the collagen from animals of this age. In terms of quality, Scandinavian hides are used which, whilst more expensive, do produce a better product; as Andreas Moeller says: ‘If you start with good raw material, it is easier to make good leather’.

In addition to their shrunken grain product, Aarenes also produce leather that meets the Gortex standard for the Norwegian army, vegetable tanned leather for leathergoods and wet-blue for sale. Last year they produced 17.5 million square feet of leather. They also undertake contract tanning and, unusually, they contract tan a significant number of sealskins that are used for leathergoods and belts.

Like all European tanneries, Aarenes are constantly striving to meet the stringent demands of their local water authority and as such have good environmental policies in place. They used to have a flotation effluent treatment system but they found it difficult to adjust the pH, so five years ago they changed to a sedimentation system which is much more effective; last year there was only 15kg of chromium in their entire year’s effluent.

They have also reduced their sludge disposal costs by having their sludge composted and spread on top of a municipal landfill site. When the site is completely covered in twenty years time, it will be planted with trees. Fleshings are also composted and spread on the land. The only cost that the tannery incurs for disposal of their fleshings is the transport.

Aarenes Lrfabrikk AS own the rights to the water that flows through their tannery site and in 1916 the tannery utilised this resource to generate its own electricity. But, due to high maintenance costs, the turbines have not been in use for many years. However, rising electricity prices have stimulated investigations into resurrecting this technology.

Andreas Moeller and representatives from a neighbouring factory have spent the past two years doing research and gaining permission to harness the power held in the lake at the back of the tannery. It is envisaged that the single turbine will be operational by 2009 and will produce 4.5 million kwh (that’s enough energy to supply 220 houses). Since this is far more than the tannery and neighbouring factory need, the excess electricity will be sold to the local electricity company.

Norway is a beautifully clean and tidy country and there is no doubt that if industries such as the tanning industry, which has the potential to create a lot of waste, can not only minimise the amount of waste that they produce but actually make use of what they do produce, Norway will hopefully remain clean and tidy. Aarenes clearly demonstrate that this is achievable.

Moeller understands that whilst there are likely to be difficult trading times ahead, providing his tannery can be innovative and embrace new technologies such as wet-white, and maintain the quality of their product, they should retain the niche markets to which they sell; he hopes the future will be good for Aarenes.