My old friend Tony Dickson of S&V South Africa has launched a new magazine called S&V African Leather to underline his increased coverage of the leather industry. In fact, it is one half of his original footwear magazine which you turn over and read from the other end, a practical idea in these straightened times. His first edition covered the South African SLTC conference which highlighted the use of wet-white.

There are many arguments one can make in favour of chrome tanned leather but the top and bottom of it is that the mighty automotive industry has perceived chrome-free leathers as being more acceptable. And as Dr Gerhard Wolff of BASF said at the last IULTCS Congress in Cape Town, it is irrelevant whether customer requirements are reasonable or not, as a commercial organisation we have no option but to supply them with what they want.

According to S&V, the car industry worldwide consumes around 600 million sq ft of leather a year, around 2.5% of total leather consumption. In South Africa, automotive leather has a much higher dominance and automotive tanners finished around 1.8 million hides last year while the country as a whole produced 2.2 million hides. Imports and exports cloud the issue somewhat but the significance is clear.

‘It is not overstating the case to say that a handful of motor companies underpin the leather industry in South Africa. And if those companies tell the automotive tanners and their suppliers to jump, they don’t tend to argue the point.

‘Tanneries have acquiesced to producing full grain leathers so heavily coated that it is questionable whether leather’s single most important property – its permeability – actually functions.

‘Three of South Africa’s five automotive tanneries are producing leather from wet-whites as well as wet-blues, despite effluent and cost problems which, if economics were the only determinant, would confine wet-white to the laboratory until – if – it is ready for commercial application.

‘The driver behind the chrome-free revolution was the automotive industry’, said BLC’s Dr Andrew Hudson in his paper ‘Will wet-white win?’ Although chrome-free only makes up 5% of the total automotive leather industry, the major automotive leather producers were nearer 30% chrome-free. Taking Audi as an example, around 50% of vehicles produced have leather, all of which are chrome-free.’

‘Eagle Ottawa marketing manager Nigel Dunning said: ‘Making wet-white leather is a very unforgiving process and if I didn’t have to make it, I wouldn’t.’

‘Volkswagen, however, are adamant in their stance on chrome-free leathers’, said Geert Jansingh, manager of supplier development in the purchasing division of VWSA. ‘If there are problems with chrome-free leathers, the approach we want the industry to take is ‘what are we going to do about it?’ not ‘why don’t we go back to wet-blue?’ If there is anything we can do to assist in solving problems with the effluent, for example, we will. But we are not going back to chrome leathers.’

He said VW and Audi had moved away from chrome-tanned leathers for environmental reasons: specifically, the European Union’s End of Life Vehicle Directive, which will, over a period, oblige vehicle manufacturers to produce vehicles which can either be fully recycled or safely disposed of. Since heavy metals, such as chrome, will be banned from landfill sites, leather will have to be incinerated, which can convert cr(III) to cr(VI).

The irony is that aldehydes which are being used to produce chrome-free leathers may be considerably more environmentally dangerous than chrome – if not in the end product, then certainly during production. Environmental consultant Johan Barnard said he had run tests in a wet-white tannery’s effluent treatment plant and even after adjusting the pH up – the recommended method of rendering aldehydes non-toxic – the effluent had killed the bugs which make the treatment plant work.

‘Aldehydes are dangerous to work with and some researchers believe aldehydes are also carcinogenic. By contrast, we know all about chrome and it doesn’t deserve the toxic label it’s been given.’

‘Dr Warren Bowden, BLC, bluntly called the VW/Audi environmental argument as totally flawed.’ As I see it, the industry is stuck with it!