The impact of leather and tanneries

The leather and tanneries have roots in history. However, their impact on the environment is a recent subject. Like any other phenomenon, leather and luxury items have a hidden side that can make many people sick. It is a delicate issue, as is that of the dietary consumption of Meat. Each of us makes personal choices regarding environmental sustainability, and we always prefer to use very calm tones, inviting us to take one step at a time. However, we must make known the impact of fabrics and materials, and we cannot fail to mention leather. Respecting everyone’s choices, we have the task of informing. It is not just a question of animal abuse; we try to retrace the main aspects with other people. There are also other dark sides of an industry that we are afraid to talk about, as many environmental activists say, who deal with these issues to try to understand and make known what happens behind the products we buy. Meat is an increasingly discussed sector, not only for the mistreatment of animals but also for its impact on health and the environment.

The impact of leather and tanneries

The leather industry, Environmental and social impact

The leather industry has a substantial environmental and social impact on the world. Regions where tanneries are located, particularly in countries with more inefficient regulatory and control systems, are characterized by abnormal levels of water and soil pollution levels, environmental damage, and health risks for workers and surrounding communities. Research has highlighted how these problems arise from the careless treatment of wastewater and solid waste deriving from the tanning process. The most significant risk is the use of Chromium III, which in certain circumstances can turn into the more toxic and carcinogenic Chromium VI (CrVI) and become a serious threat to workers. If solid waste and untreated wastewater containing Cr (VI) are abandoned on open land, they can contaminate surrounding water bodies, including drinking water, for decades. In addition, irrigation water-rich in Cr (VI) and sewage sludge can damage the land and crops surrounding the tanneries, thus putting the survival of the entire population at risk. Research has also revealed many occupational health and safety issues. Ailments such as chronic fever, respiratory problems, and eye and skin irritation caused by direct contact with chemical agents are common due to the chronic absence of personal protective equipment and safety training. Added to this are incredibly precarious working conditions, starvation wages, irregular employment contracts, and the absence of social and health insurance protections. This combination of illness and financial insecurity forces many of the interviewees into a daily battle for survival, a situation which the pandemic crisis has further aggravated.

In 2015, the World Health Organization announced that red meat was a risk factor for cancer emerged. However, various studies have already associated high meat consumption with colorectal cancers. Likewise, the correlation between animal husbandry and climate change is now documented. The FAO estimates that greenhouse gases emitted by animal farms amount to 8.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent, equal to 15% of all greenhouse gases produced by human action. To the methane emitted directly by ruminants, the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the production of soy, corn, and other cereals fed to animals should be added to the count. It is estimated that between 35 and 40% of the entire world production of cereals is destined for animals, a share destined to rise considering that meat consumption is rising.

In conclusion, we dedicate 4 billion hectares to animal husbandry, 77% to agricultural land, and 44% to agricultural and forest land. And finally, the consumption of water. It takes 15,000 liters (15 cubic meters) of water to produce one pound of beef. There is a need for a small pool full of water for four steaks. A fact that seems impossible until we examine what a beast eats during its life cycle: 1,300 kilos of grain and 7,200 kilos of fodder. It takes water to make all this stuff grow. In addition, 24 cubic meters of water must be added to quench the beast’s thirst and seven cubic meters to keep it clean. The conclusion is that producing one kilo of beef takes 6.5 kilos of grains, 36 kilos of fodder, and 15 cubic meters of water. Furthermore, there is less and less water in the world “.

The bodies of the tanning industry claim to play a positive environmental role because they eliminate a waste product generated by the meat industry. Is that so? The tanning industrialists claim to play a beneficial role for environmental purposes because they free us from waste produced by the meat industry as if they were scavengers. However, the round of money around leather is so massive that it remains difficult to conceive of it as a sector that relies on producing leftovers from others. Suffice it to say that it represents the basis on which an industrial empire is built, strongly connected to luxury, consisting of shoes, handbags, belts, wallets, furniture and car upholstery, etc., for a total turnover estimated at over one trillion dollars, in a year. In conclusion, without the skin, a world would collapse.

Leafing through any magazine dedicated to leather, the complaints of the owners of tanneries emerge everywhere, denouncing the shortage of raw materials. Therefore, it is more likely to imagine the two sectors, the meat industry, and the leather industry, as two allies working together to grow the breeding and slaughtering industry. United States, Brazil, and China are the largest producers of raw hides. Europe follows them. What is Italy’s role in the sector as one of the most critical leather rollers that emerge? Italy does not have large livestock farms: with six million head of cattle raised, it represents just 0.36% of the world’s total. Consequently, the production of raw hides is also reduced: just 1% of the world total referring to 2013.

Nevertheless, it has a long and lively tanning tradition. Therefore, in terms of weight, it contributes to 9% of the world production of leather for the sole and 7.4% of the world production of tanned cowhide for all other destinations. In monetary terms, it represents 17% of the total world production and 30% of exports of finished leathers. The Italian tanning industry has undergone profound transformations in the last forty years. Traditionally the tannings work on raw hides and make them finished through the various stages of tanning. Nevertheless, since the 1980s, there has been a growing abandonment of the first tanning phase to focus on the terminal phases—a change due to two significant phenomena. On the one hand, the introduction of stricter environmental laws forced companies to make investments that not everyone wanted or could support.

On another side, the increase in the price of raw leather is due to the increase in duties by the producing countries as a strategy to promote their tanning industry. The result is that today, of all the cowhide produced in Italy, only 25% is obtained from the internal processing of raw leather. Everything else is just retanning of wet blue (ed: chrome tanned leathers still wet) from abroad. This share, added to the raw leather, leads to the conclusion that 97% of the Italian-produced leather originates from raw leather of foreign origin. In Italy, the tanning activity is concentrated in 3 districts: Arzignano in Veneto, along the Chiampo Valley in the province of Vicenza, and Santa Croce in Tuscany, between the provinces of Pisa and Florence; and Solofra in Campania, between Naples and Avellino. In particular, the municipality of Arzignano contributes 52% to the production figure.

Santa Croce, which supplies 28% of total production, focuses more on high-end production geared towards footwear and leather goods.

In the Santa Croce area, the tanning activity has a very ancient presence, but it assumes the characteristics of an industrial district starting from 1800. To better understand the physiognomy of the district, it should be borne in mind that to obtain a finished leather, the contribution of processing that goes well beyond tanning in the strict sense is required.

In summary, the working phases of the leather can be divided into three sections: pre-tanning, tanning, and finishing. Pre-tanning is used to free the skin from dirt, hair, meat residues, and grease. Tanning is used to transform the skin into rot-proof material. The finishing is used to give the leather the desired aesthetic appearance, such as thickness, color, shine, impermeability, and much more. In total, the tanneries present in the Santa Croce district are 240, for the most part, small. Some of them are equipped to carry out all the work phases within them, but this is a rarity. Most of them have only the machinery strictly necessary for the tanning phase. For this reason, many other laboratories have sprung up in the district, over 500, for the execution of specific processes. These are the so-called subcontractors that the tanneries use for the execution of preliminary and final type processes that require special machinery.

According to data provided by the Chamber of Commerce, in 2014, the district was made up of 1,027 companies, 77% directly involved with leather processing, 18.5% dedicated to commercial activities, and 4.5% to supply of machinery.

The situation is more complex than employment because there are two large categories of employees: those directly employed by manufacturing companies and those hired by agency agencies, also known as temporary workers. In truth, the situation is a bit confusing because we had to use multiple sources that are not always perfectly consistent with each other. In the end, the data that seems closest to reality is that in the district, in 2014, 12,698 people worked, of which 9,247 (72%) were directly employed by manufacturing companies and 3,451 (28%) employed by temporary agencies.

However, what about illegal jobs? Despite the wide range of forms of recruitment offered by the law, the district continues to resort to undeclared work, which is the most severe violation of workers’ rights because it deprives them of accident insurance and pension payments. In Italy, the task of verifying the application of the law concerning employment relationships is delegated to the territorial authority called the ‘Provincial Labor Directorate.’ Inspectors intervene on their initiative or upon complaint. From 1 January 2011 to 31 December 2014, 181 companies (tanneries and contractors) were inspected in the Santa Croce district (except for the municipality of Fucecchio) for 999 workers. Of these, 70% were of Italian nationality, and 30% were immigrants. Overall, irregularities were found concerning 208 workers, including 112 illegals. 43% of the undeclared workers were immigrants. Among the possible forms of irregularities – denouncing Loris Mainardi, a union exponent – is hiring workers with reduced-time or part-time contracts and then having them work as full-time “. Half a day with a contract and half a black day. A growing habit, according to the CGIL. “The salary of these workers – continues Mainardi – will not be all in the paycheck, with vital savings both in tax and social security contributions by the companies.

On its long journey from raw leather to finished product, leather goes through many stages and passes through many factories. Each process presents a potential risk to workers’ health, which, however, becomes a real threat based on the choices made by individual companies. Therefore, the actual risk depends on the modernity of the systems, the presence of protective devices, compliance with hygiene standards, and employee training. The reality of Santa Croce is too fragmented to give a detailed picture of the situation. Modern tanneries, large and attentive to the regulations in force, coexist with small tanneries and small subcontractors who unwillingly invest in hygiene and safety and try to increase their earnings by defrauding the tax authorities by hiring in black, violating accident prevention laws. By general admission, the first stages of leather processing expose people to greater fatigue and discomfort due to handling heavy, dirty material laden with residues of meat and fat. The fleshing and splitting workers are entitled to an allowance of 5.37 euros per month, but judging it unattractive, the Italians prefer to give way to immigrants.

The impact of leather and tanneries

The things that the responsible Companies should do

Companies should capitalize on decades of public campaigns and proposals aimed at truly reforming the fashion supply chains: first of all, they should adhere to the minimum requirements on supply chain transparency, revealing where they produce but should go further, making known the composition of workers in the factories, wage levels, the presence of free trade unions. They should also make binding commitments that ensure respect for human rights along the entire supply chain, starting with the payment of livable wages.

The impact of leather and tanneries

The effective enjoyment of fundamental rights by all workers employed in the brand supply chains is the only accurate indicator of social sustainability to measure the degree of Social Responsibility otherwise only stated on paper.

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