The Genuine Italian Vegetable-Tanned Leather Consortium was founded on October 17, 1994, by eleven companies from the tanning region which nestles between Pisa and Florence. Brought together by their dedication to the production of high quality, natural and long lasting leather, the consortium aims to raise consumer awareness of the veg tanning process which they describe as ‘a perfect marriage of natural quality, tradition and advanced technology.’

The consortium’s tanners are loyal to the ancient traditions of vegetable tanning and combine this craft with technological innovation. Today the group has 28 members. To join, tanneries must adhere to UNI rule 10885 which specifies that their entire production process from raw hides to finished leather must be carried out in Italy. The document also lists components permitted for use.

There is a large membership fee to ensure newcomers are serious about the venture and will uphold the group’s reputation for quality. The association is mainly funded by contributions from tanners, as a percentage of their sales. The group’s tanners use mainly Italian chestnut from Silvateam, Argentine Quebracho from Indunor and Unitán and these vegetable extract producers also make voluntary contributions to the consortium.

Quality not volume

Whilst in today’s market the vast majority of the industry prioritises volume, these companies are happy to create small custom made orders for clients. According to Leonardo Volpi, a member of the board, the fact that the management teams of member tanneries are young means they have a very modern outlook, enabling them to focus on the quality of the leather rather than volume. He told Leather International that the flexibility and exclusivity that the association’s tanneries offer has prompted increased demand from the luxury goods companies over the last year.

This modern outlook is carried through to the group’s marketing strategy. Through the group, each tannery is able to offer clients a label for use by finished goods manufacturers which guarantees that the leather used has been processed with the utmost respect for man and the environment. According to Mauro Lotti of Valdarno, this guarantee responds to the new century’s philosophy in which consumers seek assurance that their purchases have not involved unethical labour practices or hazards to the environment.

Furthermore, the label allows authentication and traceability of the tannery and manufacturer.

The scheme has proved popular with brands and consumers in a number of countries. Since 1997, more than 5 million labels have been distributed and have been taken up most enthusiastically by Italian leathergoods manufacturers, although the labels are available in several languages. Japan is the destination for 35% of the labels, owing to the strength of the Japanese luxury goods market.

As more and more buyers become aware of the label and begin requesting it from tanners, more companies approach the association seeking membership.

The marketing campaign also seeks to promote the eco-sustainable aspect of veg-tanned leather. The association states that extraction of tannins from the trunk and bark of the chestnut and quebracho does not impoverish forests. Furthermore, veg tanned leather is completely biodegradable and ideal for sufferers of chrome allergies.

Currently, main export areas include the United States, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and, within Europe, Scandinavia, Spain, Austria, Germany, United Kingdom, Netherlands and France. However, that hasn’t discouraged the consortium from taking their awareness raising events far and wide.

Marketing the product direct to the end user is difficult so workshops in the major Italian cities target finished product sales people. A recent visit to London, (Leather International December 2006) comprised a press conference and sessions with designers to highlight the ability of the tanneries to adapt to the seasonal whims of the fashion industry.

The event was attended by over 100 designers who were able to peruse swatches of the latest designs for the autumn/winter season 2007/08 and some innovative finished goods made from veg-tanned leather. In order to assist tanners in the creation of highly fashionable leathers, the group provide a fashion forecast called ‘Natural Sensations’ (see Fashion supplement in this edition).

International initiatives are tailored to the needs of each individual market thus, in New York, the association take their message directly into design offices. Here, the

consortium have been ‘educating’ designers not to look for ‘perfection and uniformity’ offered by synthetics but celebrate the originality offered by veg-tanned leather.

Additional events are held regularly in Paris and Tokyo. According to Stefania Miniati, the Japanese market is very important. Seminars are well attended by buyers, agents and designers. Most sales are for leathergoods factories in South Korea. Japan has very strict import quotas but is extremely receptive and appreciative of the association’s message.

Tradition & Passion at Valdarno

Everyone you talk to in Tuscany highlights the longstanding tradition of vegetable tanning in the region. Mauro Lotti was born in the area and into the tanning traditions of the family business.

‘Today everything is large scale – big malls selling globalised products. Many leathergoods manufacturers and brands place a heavy emphasis on design but fail on the choice of material as quality is sacrificed to budget. Products made from chromed leather are uniform, lacking an identity of their own.

‘In contrast, as articles made from veg tanned leather age, character is created. Even two articles from the same batch will look different due to the differing effects of wear, light and so on. This means that a mass product becomes personalised as if it had been custom made, allowing the user to feel that his or her product is unique.’

Valdarno decided to join the association to help people understand the product and share the love they have for the leather, which Lotti believes is not just a commodity but a precious article. He states that the luxury brands such as Prada should be leading the way in using the highest quality materials as they have the largest margins available to them.

The final consumer will be willing to pay more for items with ‘soul’. Lotti believes that a cheaper article will not necessarily achieve higher volume of sales purely on the basis that it costs less.’


Valdarno are inventive, always seeking to modify the leathermaking process. Finishing technicians carry out trials, mixing products to individual secret recipes. Everyday objects such as washing up sponges with scourers are used to create innovative effects for the leather industry. A further example involves using a glazing jack fitted with a piece of wood with nails instead of amber.

The finishing film used comes from maize and is applied to give shine/ glaze. It is then removed and is biodegradable.

According to Lotti, craftsmanship is more important to the process than machinery. Vegetable tanning takes around four working weeks to deliver finished leather, it is a long process and hides are air dried and many leathers are hand stained.

Based in San Miniato, Valdarno have been operating for ten years and employ 26 people. Valdarno have two sites; one houses wet-end operations and a second houses the finishing plant, warehouse and despatch. Raw materials come from the Normandy, Bretagne and Alsace regions of France. The tannery has a capacity of 400,000 sq ft but is currently working at 180-210,000. Production includes croupons and shoulders, 0.7mm- 4.5mm belting leather and some lightweight leathers for shoes and leathergoods.

40% of production is for export to the Far East where it is then used in products for the North American and European markets (the Italian market accounts for 60%).

Creativity at La Bretagna

La Bretagna were established 40 years ago and built their reputation on small leathergoods leathers. The majority of the tannery’s production (85%) is for use in such items including belts, albums, diaries.

Seven years ago, they began production of leathers for upholstery and interior design as they saw it as a particularly dynamic area of the market. This now accounts for 15% of production. 80% of raw materials come from France, the rest from elsewhere in Europe, Belgium and Spain in particular. Capacity is around 150-200,000 sq ft per month.

Of the 15 strong team at La Bretagna, four are involved in research and development. Trials are carried out continuously to explore how best to meet customers demands.

According to Paolo Testi, the team are learning all the time. Whilst they have over 30 years’ experience in hand staining leathers, other techniques specialised in here include shrinking effects, brushing by hand and classic vaquetta which can be milled/ tumbled and smooth.

The research team is now able to produce folio – metallic effect on vegetable leather. According to Testi, this is very difficult as oils tend to come to the surface. Floor tiles and wallcoverings, and upholstery for furniture with maximum resistance characteristics, are further specialities.

The team create finished articles to propose to the market at shows such as Lineapelle and Hong Kong and Testi says that sometimes their designs prove to be three years ahead of the market. Many features of the design process are freestyle, original and individual. Some ideas are taken from trend selections but applied in their own way.

He believes that personnel are the key to success. ‘To face the market for the future, you have to be faster, more flexible. With a good team you can do whatever you want.’

The unique characteristics of vegetable tanned leather are very hard to reproduce elsewhere. The process needs a particular climate and quality of water, like that offered in the Tuscan region, which according to Testi is precisely why small companies like this are still in the market.

Previously, 80% of production went to the US. However, the strength of the euro against the dollar has changed the company’s market orientation. Today, 50% of production is for domestic buyers and 50% is exported.

The company have a 50 year long tradition of tanning and their speciality is upholstery leather for dining chairs created with a special oil.

Tre Gazelle began production on their 12,000 sq m Castel Franco di Sotto site, in 2003. Although the consortium certifies only vegetable leather, tanneries do not need to produce veg leather exclusively. Here for example, there is some chrome and mixed

production in addition to the 20,000 sq ft of veg. Specialities include heavy leathers such as shoulders and double butt for use in belts and leathergoods, and also for boots and heavy duty footwear. Leathers for furnishings such as lamps and tables are an additional strength.