Perspective on Leather - its place in the world - (courtesy
of World Leather Magazine)
Leather and the leather industry has
been around a long while - there are those who claim it is the
second oldest profession in the world. Going back a few millennia,
when our earliest ancestors decided that sitting on hard rock
wasn't a soft option, they turned to other materials to create
more comfortable seating, as well as warmer bedding and some
more acceptable form of clothing to go out in.
Animal skins became the fabric
of choice and, at some time or another, they discovered that
various treatments applied to the raw hides and skins helped
to stop the destruction, through bacterial action, of the
by-product of their food supply.
The reputation of the leather industry
across the centuries could be described as one of tolerated
usefulness, with a wonderful end product. As the industry
enters the 21st Century, it is now recognised as a major industry
of great economic importance on an international scale. Yet
there are those who still wish to tar it with a negative brush,
unwilling to recognise it as a modern, even high tech, sector.
The industry, as well as its national and international associations,
needs to make the public aware of just how seriously it takes
its responsibilities while producing a host of products in
one of the world's finest natural materials.
the last century came to a close, the worldwide industry had
gone through a period of fundamental change. The enactment
of environmental legislation in countries across the world
had become faster, stricter and more restrictive. It was applied
to industry in general and in some cases to the leather sector
in particular. Those tanners who could not cope with the new
legislation went out of the industry, those who remained invested
heavily in order to meet new standards and prosper. Machinery
builders introduced new technology to the advantage of the
leather producers and the result has been the creation of
an industry which, in general, can be proud of its achievements.
To those who work in the sector, it
may seem trite to remind people that the raw material of the
leather industry is based on the premise of turning the food
industry's waste product into a desirable, useful and sustainable
range of end products. Despite this truism, there are vocal
minorities who wish to disseminate the idea that the tanning
industry rears cattle for their hides.
Whilst it is also a truism that the
hide dealer and tanner prefer to receive raw material in the
best condition, those same campaigners try to create the notion
that the leather industry has some responsibility for bad
farming and husbandry methods. The fact that poor raw material
is exactly what the industry does not want escapes them. The
international leather industry even has its own organisation,
IHATIS, the international hide and allied trades improvement
society, with the sole purpose of promoting better animal
welfare and food preparation methods in order that the food
and agriculture industry appreciates that its waste by-product
has a value. [It is worth reminding national associations
in the supply chain of the leather industry that it behoves
them to be active members of IHATIS in the new world of instant
Critics who target the raising and
husbandry of livestock and the meat industry in general blithely
ignore the realities of different cultures and the needs of
developing countries. In many of the world's poorest economies,
domesticated animals - cattle, goats and sheep - frequently
represent the wealth and well being of local populations.
Sustaining those animals is of crucial importance, even to
being the line between living and starvation. In the year
2000, for instance, the havoc in Mongolia wreaked by the failure
of the rains and the resultant lack of grazing has been devastating,
with the loss of hundreds of thousands of animals. The drought
has effectively crippled the country's people and economy.
Those who target the food and leather industry, damning businesses
which trade at any level in both sectors, often justifying
their arguments and actions on isolated instances of poor
or unacceptable practice, should beware the consequences of
their actions in their zeal to promote a lifestyle based on
a world without meat, dairy products or leather.
In the overall food chain, the positive
economic importance of the industry taking care of one of
its major waste products should not be underestimated or marginalised.
As the tanning industry is sometimes criticised on environmental
grounds, ponder the alternative hazard of millions of dumped,
putrefying hides and skins. Whoever it was who first thought
of preserving hides and skins did mankind a tremendous service.
The leather industry in total produces
about 18 billion square feet of leather a year, and the total
value of this is estimated at about $40 billion. If the by-product
of the meat industry, hides and skins, was not used to produce
this quantity of leather, then, for example, shoes and upholstery
would be manufactured from alternative, non-renewable raw
materials such as plastics and other petrochemical based products.
Developing countries now produce over 60% of the world's leather,
and this proportion is growing.
About 65% of the world production of
leather is estimated to go into leather footwear and the global
production of footwear is estimated at around 11 billion pairs
(worth an estimated $150 billion at wholesale prices).
The value of leather products at retail
level would be commensurately higher - and the value of products
containing leather, if one counts automobiles and aircraft,
would be substantially greater than a straight proportion
of the footwear value. The value of leather produced for the
automotive industry has been calculated at $1,350 million
Trade and employment
The number of people employed in the
tanning industry worldwide is estimated at well over 500,000
and the numbers employed in downstream manufacturing sectors
would increase this number substantially. The leather
industry is very much an international industry - with raw
hides and skins, part processed leather, finished leather,
leather components and leather products widely imported and
exported. FAO quote figures which demonstrate how important
the leather sector is in international trade terms - much
bigger than meat and other commonly recognised commodities.
(Million US Dollars - Average 1994-1996)
Raw hides and skins 5,419
Leather footwear 24,974
(from cattle, sheep and goats)
On these figures, the value of the
international trade in meat, tea, coffee, rice and sugar needs
to be added together to surpass the value of the leather and
leather footwear sector. At the same time, the table highlights
the beneficial economic importance of the industry, adding
genuine value to the raw hides and skins which would otherwise
Significant steps have been made by
the global leather industry with regard to environmental matters.
In the manufacturing stages, a high level of quality control
ensures that the best use is made of hides and skins and the
chemicals required in their conversion into leather. Overall
chemical and water use has thus been reduced, reducing the
level of waste for treatment.
Many new techniques have evolved specifically
to reduce pollution before any form of treatment. Specifically
JIT techniques and alternative methods of preservation are
used to reduce the use of salt for preservation. Biotechnology
is employed in process to reduce the levels of chemicals and
energy used. There has been a significant move away from non-biodegradable
products, and the phasing out of products suspected of causing
Pollution is also being reduced by
making use of previous wastes as a source of new raw materials.
Hair, off-cuts, and other manufacturing wastes are being converted
in fertilisers, added value products and energy. Products
that were not taken up in processing, such as residual chromium
from tanning, are being reprocessed to create new tanning
materials. Even waste waters from some sections of manufacture
are being recycled and used again within manufacture.
The industry is strongly regulated
regarding emissions such as waste water, solid wastes and
air emissions. Comprehensive effluent treatment systems ensure
that waste water discharge limits set by relevant authorities
are met. Treated effluents are scrutinised by regulatory authorities,
and every tannery needs to meet stringent discharge parameters
to both surface waters and sewers. Any solid wastes for landfill
from direct manufacture, or from treatment of effluents, are
also regulated. Disposal is carefully controlled, with emphasis
on alternative uses with gasification techniques and energy
generation moving to the fore.
Air emissions have also been closely
addressed. The use of solvents has plummeted over the last
ten years, being replaced by newly developed water based auxiliaries.
For degreasing operations, solvents have been replaced by
aqueous degreasing technology. Odour, overspray and air borne
particles can all be treated by specialised extraction, chemical
and biological treatment systems.
The industry is proactive in addressing
environmental issues and in investments in clean technology.
The use of best available technology continues to reduce the
use of water, chemicals and energy in process, convert
waste into new raw materials, and treat residual waste to
The issue of chrome
The use of chromium in the leather
industry merits a separate article on its own, and this is
planned for a future issue. However, as part of the overview
of the industry, the use of chrome is also considered.
Chromium III salts are used extensively
in the tanning process. Approximately 90% of the leather manufactured
is tanned using chromium III. This is because chromium is
the most efficient and versatile tanning agent available,
and it is relatively cheap. It has been used in the leather
industry for almost 100 years and when it was introduced as
an alternative to vegetable tanning extracts from oak bark
and similar sources, it heralded a new era for the leather
industry. It reduced the time taken within the tanning process
from months to days, and offered leathers with properties
that were previously unattainable - for example tolerance
to heat - without which it would be almost impossible to make
leather shoes by mechanical means.
The leather industry only uses chromium
in its safest and most stable form - chromium III. However,
due to misconceptions about chromium and a failure to recognise
the distinctions between chromium III and chromium VI, which
is generally understood to be toxic, the tanning industry
has often been placed under unwarranted pressure by regulatory
bodies with regard to both the use and disposal of chromium
and chromium-containing materials. Chromium VI compounds are
not used by the tanning industry.
The toxicity of chromium III is similar
to that of common salt, and standard chemical references quote:
"Chromium III compounds show little or no toxicity." Much
of the chromium III used in the tannery is recycled or reused,
and most of the chromium III which enters the tannery waste
streams is removed on-site by precipitation as the insoluble
chromium III hydroxide which may then go to landfill. Chromium
will only exist in the environment as chromium III. In soil,
chromium VI is rapidly reduced to chromium III by its oxidative
action upon organic material.
The EC recently considered and rejected
a proposal to include tannery wastes containing chromium in
the European Hazardous Waste List on the basis that the wastes
did not possess the characteristics necessary for classification
as a hazardous waste. In the United States, the Environmental
Protection Agency revised substantially upwards its limits
for chromium in sludge applied to agricultural land following
an action by the industry in the US Court of Appeal, on the
basis that there was no scientific justification for the original
proposals. The original proposal for a total chromium limit
of 12,000mg/kg of dry solids; the revised limit for chromium
III was 100,000mg/kg, (after reducing the calculated amount
from 2, 400,000mg/kg to 1,000,000 and applying an additional
10-fold safety factor).
The aesthetics of leather
In matters of taste, the consumer is
king. It is for the international industry to continue to
show ingenuity and innovation to meet the desires, needs and
demands of the consumer, whether in footwear, clothing, upholstery
and furnishings or leathergoods of every description. It is
also a matter for the leather industry at large to be conscious
of the fact that there are always alternatives. To remain
competitive in the world market - and competitive in this
instance includes subjective concepts as well as objective
measurement, every link in the leather chain has to remain
vigilant, manufacturing to the standards the public
is entitled to expect in the 21st Century.