and Technology in the Leather Industry
towards sustainable development by European tanners
Is The Tanning Industry?
hides and skins is one of mankind’s oldest trades.
began when primitive man realised there was more value to
an animal than food. Our prehistoric predecessors used the
hides and skins of large mammals for clothing that protected
them from adverse weather conditions. However, left untreated,
the hide or skin of an animal quickly begins to rot, putrefy
and smell. So our ancestors found ways to stop this natural
process so their clothing didn’t become unwearable, if not
unbearable. Just think how those early discoveries happened.
After a hide lay out in the sun for a few days, it became
stiff and hard, but the offensive smell disappeared.
Picture: Heritage Museum
important prehistoric advancement was smoke tanning. Hides
and skins were used as building material for tents and huts.
The smoke from the fireplace preserved (tanned) the hides
and increased their resistance to the elements. This method
was utilized extensively by Native Americans for their teepees
and wigwams, and remains popular today in some parts of China.
Another successful invention was vegetable tanning. It probably
started when hides were placed in a pool of water surrounded
by trees. Pieces of wood, bark and leaves floated in the pond
which contained natural “agents,” or chemicals, that tanned
the hide. This type of treatment dominated the leather industry
until the 19th century when the chrome tanning process for
the Middle Ages, tanneries became well-organised. They gathered
in special areas where raw materials (hides and skins, access
to water) were present in large quantities. Many tanneries
have been located in the same areas in Europe for more than
There weren’t many changes in leather manufacturing from the
Middle Ages through the end of the 17th century. But advancements
in chemistry in the 19th century were vital to the development
of the industry, especially chrome tanning, which utilizes
salts of chromium to tan the animal skins and hides, as well
as the use of enzymes and many other discoveries.
At first, the science of leather tanning was accidental. Yesterday,
tanning harnessed the best practices of an agrarian craft
and transformed it into a modern industry. Today, research
and development is a systematic process that maximises the
benefits of animal hides and skins as an important natural
resource while minimising stress on the environment.
Tomorrow, the European leather industry will continue to develop
innovative clean technologies that bring sustainable solutions
to complex ecological, safety, aesthetic and performance challenges.
European Leather Industry
leather industry in the European Union (EU) consists of approximately
3,000 tanneries that directly employ some 50,000 people. It embraces
primarily small and medium-sized tanneries. The tannery industrial sector
in Europe is present in all the European countries except Luxembourg,
although the majority is concentrated in Southern European countries.
Certain regions and municipalities within the EU member states retain
characteristic concentrations of tanneries, whose socio-economic life
heavily depends on this sector's activity.
Europe is an important player in the international leather trade, providing
25 percent of the world’s leather production and one of the largest
and most dynamic consumer markets for leather articles.
With revenues of nearly 8 billion Euros, the tanners in Europe are very
competitive in the global leather market. EU tanneries have a long tradition
of producing a wide variety of leather, from bovine and calf leather
to sheep and goat leather, from sole and exotic specialities to double-face
garment leather. Centuries of experience and the outstanding know-how
of European tanners and dressers create continuously strong demand for
For a comprehensive explanation on the manufacturing of leather, check
out our special page.
Advancements in the Leather Industry
Cleaner water, better environment
is usually tanned with chromium, or “chrome”: the chemical
element used to coat other metals with a shiny finish that
does not tarnish. Tanning hides with chromium salts produces
soft, supple leather that can be dyed in a wide range of colours.
By reducing the quantity of these salts to the precise amount
required to maintain the quality consumers expect in a leather
product, the discharge of chromium into the water used to
process hides has been reduced by more than 90%.
worth waiting for
Large amount of water were once a significant part of many
leather tanning processes. However, since water has become
a scarce resource in some parts of Europe, the leather industry
has done its part to re-engineer its once-wasteful ways.
For the past few decades, science has helped the leather industry
reduce its water consumption by more than 60 percent. This
has been achieved by the development of new cleaning techniques,
the use of batch processes instead of rinsing, and better
An energetic alternative to waste byproducts
Only 20% of the mass of an animal’s hide is converted into leather.
Today, the excess fat and tissue left over from the tanning process
is converted in “biogas” plants that utilize a fermentation process
to change these effluents into an alternative source of fuel. Technologies
have also been developed to convert untanned hide and skin trimmings
into organic byproducts like gelatine, glue and other protein products.
Unfortunately, the leather industry can be a factor in less-than-desirable
air quality near local tanneries. One of the problems for the industry
has been the use of organic solvents in the finishing stage of the manufacturing
Science has helped the leather lower the emission of organic solvents
to the air by 90 percent for most leather types. This has been achieved
by the introduction of improved systems combined with new environmentally
Hair today, organic fertiliser tomorrow
leather manufacturing, one of the first steps is the removal of hair
from the hides using a disintegration agent such as sulfide. This organic
waste accumulates in the wastewater sent to the local purification plant.
Science has developed a new process that reduces the residue from unhairing
by 50%. Instead of dissolving the hairs from the hides, they are kept
intact so they can be used as fertiliser by farmers, thereby reducing
the use of synthetic alternatives for helping crops grow.
Advancements Add New Qualities To Leather
is a natural material with unique properties that make it the preferred
choice for crafting thousands of products in addition to traditional
applications in upholstery, shoes, garments and luggage.
The main difference between leather and synthetic materials
is that leather can "breathe" and shape itself over
time to the wearer.
High-quality leather also offers the ability to absorb
moisture without feeling wet.
For example, the human foot produces between three
and five centilitres of sweat every day.
Forty percent of the sweat will disappear, while the
remaining moisture should be absorbed by the shoe so the foot
doesn’t feel wet. Leather
is the best material for this purpose.
Leather also resists a nearly infinite amount of bending and
delivers excellent elasticity.
This is an important comfort factor for the top part,
or “upper,” of a shoe since the foot swells during the day.
The quality of finished leather depends on a combination of the original
properties in the natural hide, and the chemical and physical components
added during the manufacturing process.
New technologies are being invented every year that make leather
more versatile, more colourful and more appealing as an alternative
to woven fabrics and plastic.
Special chemical treatments can enhance the fireproof qualities
of leather to supplement its natural heat resistance properties. This increases the safety of using leather in applications
where fire resistance is important like movie theatres, salons, cars,
aeroplanes and upholstery. Fireproof
leather can even be used for common products like potholders that adhere
to any surface for a better grip.
A rainbow of choices
Advancements in the finishing processes make it possible
to produce leather in any colour you can imagine in addition to
traditional shades of brown and black.
Many internationally recognised designers are choosing
leather to replace synthetic and dyed fabrics in stunning new
designs. From futuristic
chic to natural glamour, leather is fast becoming the first choice
for apparel that’s soft, stunning and sexy.
Even protective clothing made from leather has become stylish,
with a fit and finish that’s as appropriate on a Parisian fashion
runway as an airport runway.
Designers are also using leather for their latest products, working
closely with tanneries to develop leather with unique new properties
like water resistance, not to mention a rainbow of colours, textures
and finishes that look and feel right in any room.
A new kick
When it comes to sports equipment, nothing can match
the strength, abrasion resistance, durability and flexibility
of leather for footballs, equestrian harnesses, sport gloves,
baseball mitts and the safety equipment worn by athletes everywhere
from the jogging track to the ski slopes.
It’s no accident that motorcycle enthusiasts rely on leather
for their outerwear…it’s the ultimate in protection from the elements,
not to mention the asphalt.
Just like mom
When babies are born, the infants are often laid on a
blanket made of…leather!
The soft, warm qualities of leather are far superior
to other materials for the critical moment when the child
is first separated from its mother.
This particular kind of leather must be “baby-proof”
through careful selection and processing to make it soft,
safe and comfortable.
The Celtic Sheepskin Company
The Future Of The Leather Industry
prosper in the future, European tanneries must remain at the forefront
of technological development. It is imperative that they establish co-operation
within the EU and continue to participate in future R&D activities.
The European leather industry and scientists working for the industry
are committed to reducing the environmental impact from the tanning
process, and also to improve the quality of the product.
The Tanweek brochure provides some examples of the benefits of science
on this ancient craft. There are many more tanning technologies that
have been substantially improved in recent years; the leather research
institutes in all European countries can provide more information about
Over the course of the last two decades, the European
industry has developed innovative clean technologies bringing sustainable
solutions to complex problems, in accordance with the guidelines established
by the Rio Conference in 1992. European tanners will move ahead with
sustainable development efforts after the UN World Summit for Sustainable
Development held in 2002.
The combination of science and the leather industry will continue to
improve the environmental performance of the industry, and thereby improve
the quality of life for European citizens.
most leather clothing has to be dry cleaned by professionals. In the
future, scientific advancements will allow you to wash some kinds of
leather in an ordinary washing machine.
Some kinds of leather are so water-friendly, you can even relax
in leather swimwear at the beach.
To infinity and beyond
Leather has played an important role in man’s conquest of
space. Its superior
breathability, flexibility and corrosion resistance makes it ideal
for gloves, boots, helmets and other mission-critical spacesuit
surprising new uses for
are being invented every day, thus assuring that nature’s finest
fabric will continue its remarkable history well into the future.
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