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Perspective on leather - Its place in the world

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(Article 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.

As 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.

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 23-24 billion square feet of leather a year, and the total value of this is estimated value approaching $50 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.

Just under 50% of the world production of leather is estimated to go into leather footwear.

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.

Value of international Trade

(Million US Dollars – Average 2012-2014)

Raw hides and skins 6,225
Wet blue, crust and finished leather 22,286
Leather footwear 53,717
Total 82,227

Other commodities

Sugar (raw equivalent) 17,900
Meat (beef and veal) 29,185
Rubber (natural dry) 28,632
Coffee (green) 25,007
Rice (milled) 21,491
Cotton (lint) 16,660
Tea 6,016

Source FAO

These figures demonstrate that the combined value of international trade in the sector dwarfs the value of trade in many other traditional commodities. 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 be wasted.

The environment

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 environmental damage.

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 international standards.

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.

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