The time has come!

Vegetable tanned leather is a guarantee of sustainability

“Welcome to 2050: We were waiting for you since 1282”, this was the headline at the last APLF in Hong Kong on the eye-catching installation of the Genuine Italian Vegetable Tanned Leather Consortium. It was a good opportunity to catch up with its chair, Leonardo Volpi.

Are we finally there? Lawmakers have understood the need to reduce or even eliminate environmental harm, but are consumers really ready to abandon what they are used to and make a real commitment to the health of the planet?

The first definition of sustainable development was given in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. In terms of ethics, when it comes to outlining our principles, we are always in agreement. The problem arises immediately afterwards when, for example in the fashion industry, there is a lack of parameters clearly setting out the meaning of “sustainable”, so for years people have been free to call their product green or eco simply by highlighting its positive characteristics or failing to declare its critical issues. Under the umbrella of sustainability and ethics, a plethora of new alternative materials have sprung up, which are marketed as bio-based, natural, cruelty-free, eco-friendly, green or sustainable. But are they really or is it just a question of green-washing? The issue is that if you have a lot of media power to back up your message, the public and consumers start seeing it as the truth… More than 30 years since the definition of the principle, we finally have a European Green Deal that sets the goals of this sustainable development, establishes deadlines and attempts to lay down rules. For example, the European Parliament has approved the Ecodesign regulation, which from 2030 will enforce eco-compatible design that will take account of durability, reusability, repairability, recycling and end of life of the materials used and of the products themselves. And how does Tuscan Vegetable Tanned Leather fit into these criteria? Our businesses produce their skins entirely in Tuscany, without outsourcing production to other parts of the world where standards are lower, if not absent. The raw materials we use come from renewable sources. Raw hides, animal fats and vegetable oils, and tannins are all organic ingredients that can regenerate over time. The raw hides we use are by-products of the European food industry, so we are recycling waste product and giving it new life and new value. A lot of the waste from the tanning process is reused in other industries, such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, or in new materials such as regenerated leather. Vegetable tanned leather is a long-lasting material that improves over time. A product in vegetable tanned leather can be repaired, regenerated, transformed and reused several times over the years. It seems to me that we are fully within the requirements of the Ecodesign regulation.

Since the pandemic, there has been a growing desire to live in closer harmony with nature, favouring less sophisticated and longer-lasting practices and products. Do you think this will benefit products trademarked Vera Pelle Italiana Conciata al Vegetale (Genuine Italian Vegetable Tanned Leather)?

As we were saying earlier, it is probably about time we realised that we can no longer postpone the problem, that now is the time to take action and that global warming affects everyone and everyone must do their part. After years of bingeing on fast fashion, it seems that more and more consumers have started casting a critical eye on their consumption. Let’s hope so. We have been saying for years in our seminars that people need to consume less and make better choices. Going back to the EU, another of its objectives is to introduce the Bioeconomy to achieve carbon neutrality in Europe by 2050. The principle is simple: the more we can use materials derived from biomass, the more we will contribute to reducing carbon emissions. We have to think from the cradle to the grave, ensuring that at the end of its life a material can return to its natural origins, and this can be done with the tools we have available… if this does not happen you are left with persistent substances and then you have a problem… Bio-based materials ensure carbon neutrality and circularity because nature is able to recycle the carbon dioxide and nitrogen into biomass, thus closing the loop. It is a very different situation with synthetic materials. Most plastics remain in the environment, they degrade into micro and nano-plastics and never disappear, and this has a devastating impact on the environment. Reflecting on these themes, the consortium decided to commission a noted materials expert and chemist, Dr Gustavo Defeo, to conduct a study on our vegetable tanned leather and we had leather samples from all our associated tanneries analysed to verify their bio-based content. The samples analysed produced results ranging from 85% to 100%, which is brilliant considering that the EU set an objective of 80% bio-based content that materials must achieve in order to be admitted into the European market in 2050. That is why we called our stand in Hong Kong “Welcome to 2050”, because Tuscan vegetable tanned leather has already met the objectives set by the EU for 2050. And it has always been like this to be honest. The choice to take our tradition forward is simply the right choice.

The key to vegetable tanning is the tannin extracted from a type of wood called quebracho, which allows the leather to be tanned without using metals, but is it true that it is also beneficial for the health?

Vegetable tannins were the first chemical used to tan hides, going back to prehistoric times. They are natural substances that can be found in wood, bark, leaves, roots, fruits or seeds. Their main function is to defend the plants from parasites and stresses caused by adverse climate conditions. They act as antioxidants and are naturally antibacterial and antibiotic. We consume tannins in our everyday lives every time we drink a cup of tea or coffee, whenever we eat a piece of chocolate or sip a glass of wine. Tannins are also present in pomegranates, blueberries and red fruits in general. Experts tell us that tannin is a concentrate with beneficial properties for humans… Quebracho tannin is used in the tanning process, but you can also use chestnut, mimosa, tara… tannin-tanned leather is usually recommended by dermatologists to people suffering from contact dermatitis because they are allergic to metals and cannot tolerate accessories such as watch straps or shoes made of mineral-tanned leather. For example, a shoe made from vegetable tanned leather with a leather sole (also vegetable tanned) is more breathable and, thanks to the tannins, prevents bacterial proliferation and unpleasant odours inside the shoe. Your feet will thank you for it.

The Distretto Conciario Toscano (Tuscan Tanning District) is the only one in Italy to be certified by EMAS (Eco-Management and Audit Scheme). This is certainly a selling point but can you explain to us what it actually means?

It is a voluntary certification scheme promoted by the European Union to incentivise and reward the implementation of environmentally friendly strategies by businesses, organisations or complex industries, which is what our district is. The Tuscan district first obtained EMAS certification in 2010, and it has been renewed in subsequent years following inspections by the external certifying body. This period of certification cannot be built up overnight just because sustainability has become a buzzword. It is the result of a long-term, district-wide policy adopted in the late 1980s. Major investments, complex organisational work and political-administrative cooperation between the tanners’ associations and local public authorities have made it possible to create a district structure at the cutting-edge of technology and organisation. Our district now has:
– industrial areas specially designed and equipped for tanners’ production needs
– 2 centralised plants for wastewater purification
– several consortium plants that treat and recover processing by-products, sludge from the purification process, and spent chrome which is regenerated and returned to the tanneries for reuse in the production cycle
– a Tanning Technological Hub focusing on research, product and process innovation and vocational training.
Ours is an ongoing commitment because there is always room for improvement.

Ever since the consortium was set up, you have always had a humanistic approach to the business, not only focusing on the environment but also on policies around work ethics and the cultural relationship with the territory. Was it difficult to take these steps?

To be honest, I think it was a choice that reflects who we are. We come from Tuscany, which has been a cradle of culture, art and craftsmanship for centuries. We believe that art and craftsmanship are very closely linked. The hides and footwear makers guild (Arte dei Cuoiai e Galigai) was founded in Florence in 1282, so we come from a very long tanning tradition. Today’s tanners are the third or fourth generation of tanning families who have chosen to carry on the local tradition of vegetable tanned leather with passion. When we set up the Genuine Italian Vegetable Tanned Leather Consortium in 1994, the aim was to protect our traditional industry, not to create a product marketing structure. Our starting point was that we were convinced, and we still are, that a product culture must be cultivated, that you have to explain the product’s origin and quality, the places where it is made, you have to give coherent and transparent information that allows manufacturers to learn more about the material they are using and consumers to critically reassess their consumption habits. That is why we created a product trademark: Pelle Conciata al Vegetale in Toscana, which is connected to a set of Production Guidelines that members must follow. Numbered guarantee certificates on the finished products show consumers where the hide came from and its quality. Today, the Consortium focuses on promotion, research, trademark protection and product guarantees, but also on the culture and enhancement of our territory, because all these aspects help create the identity of Pelle Conciata al Vegetale in Toscana. To conclude, I would like to reiterate that vegetable tanned leather is a traditional material that we have been making for centuries, which is made of naturally available and renewable ingredients. Today we have scientific confirmation of what we instinctively knew all along: it is a BIO material par excellence, which already meets and has always met the standards set by the European Green Deal for 2050. You can make beautiful and well-made products with any number of different materials. But at what cost? The time has come to ask this question when we are faced with the choice.

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