Considerations on sustainable leather manufacturing

3 September 2007

There is room for improvement on the way to sustainable leather manufacturing. Institutes and scientists worldwide work on improvements for curing, dehairing, liming, pickling and tanning. Local developments, such as the application of Reverse Osmosis in Tamil Nadu, try to find ways to spare precious drinking water. China is forcing its tanning industry to switch from raw/salted hides to wet-blue, wet-white or crust in order to avoid the water pollution and/or consumption. In the globalisation of environmental awareness, one can find three distinct major trends: Transparency is a strong consumer request: People today want to know: where does the product come from, how was it produced, what are the ingredients and what are the social circumstances of the production? Legislation translates the consumers concern into rules and regulations for manufacturers and distributors. Additionally, brand-owners and OEMs have to fulfil the legislation in all consumer countries, since they don't know where their products will finally end up. Responsible care and product stewardship: Together with the new legislation REACh, these lead to a reversal of the burden of proof. Now the manufacturer is responsible for what he brings to the market: he has to convince the legislator that his product doesn't harm mankind or the environment and that the precautions applied in using dangerous substances are sufficient to protect users and the environment. Global air pollution and the scarcity of drinking water: In the context of global warming we need new approaches to our environmental problems: While new power plants, running on fossil energy, plan to collect the CO2 from the exhaust for storage and while used cars in EU and Japan must be recycled by 95% in 2015, a new term has been brought in by Prof Braungart (Germany): No longer is LCA (life cycle analysis) 'from cradle to grave' sufficient - today we have to take care from 'grave to cradle' again or, as Prof Braungart puts it: 'From cradle to cradle'. A totally closed loop is necessary and unavoidable. There is a 'green' cycle for natural materials from plant and animal sources which, by man-made improvements during the time of usage, must be in such a condition that reuse, eg after composting in the agricultural cycle, is not prohibitive. And there is a 'technical' cycle for all machines, buildings and other appliances, which need to be manufactured in a reusable form. Sociological impact 'But one must also see the sociological impact of industries on the conditions on earth. Taking the tanning industry as an example: The tanning and usage of animal hides for leather production is the only alternative to converting the hides into waste. The huge amount of waste would give much greater problems to mankind than all the tanneries worldwide. Thus it is beneficial for society to have tanneries, even if they are requested to settle outside the town. An even more convincing example is the story of the usage of the poisonous 'DDT'. Nobody ever died from 'DDT' but the ban on it brought millions of people the deadly malaria without escape. A responsible application of 'DDT' in the most threatened regions would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives in many countries. Sustainability also asks for a social component: the impact on the society under a global view. BASF have developed tools to compare alternative routes to a given product: the 'Eco-efficiency-Analysis' comparing the ecological and economical fingerprint of a process and - for a sustainability check - the Seebalance Analysis ( REACh The new EU-chemicals legislation on Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals makes the industry responsible for the safe use of chemicals. It is intended to encourage the substitution of hazardous chemicals and restricts substances of concern by an authorisation procedure. Once in force there will be a single system for existing and new chemicals. The implementation will be in full swing by June, 2018. Since the cost of registration is quite high, many low volume specialities will be taken from the EU-markets. It needs to be understood that REACh regulates the use of substances, not chemical products. Most of the products used for leather manufacture can contain more than twenty components and this means 'twenty plus' registrations. Political implications of REACh: * Protection of human health and the environment * Increased transparency * Integration with international efforts * Promotion of non-animal testing * Conformity with EU international obligations under WTO * Maintenance and enhancement of the competitiveness of the EU chemical industry The complexity of the legislation can be deduced from the sheer volume: 850 pages for the law and an additional 4,000 pages of explanations called 'Technical Guidance Documents' (TCD). The responsibility for the safe use of chemicals (= reversal of the burden of proof) also covers the entire life cycle of a substance along the whole value chain and includes manufacturers, importers, formulators, tanneries and leathergoods manufacturers. But it is strictly applied to substances used inside the EU and does not regulate any ingredients of consumer articles such as shoes, jackets, belts or furniture. We, therefore, can expect major imbalances in the leather or textile value chain, since in the world market similar restrictions are not in place. The chemical industry generally agrees to the targets of the legislation but would have welcomed a by far less complex procedure with a bigger focus on risk rather than volume.

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