New environmental standards and specifications, especially China’s, are one of the main challenges faced by leather chemical companies worldwide. This is the general feeling expressed by a majority of chemical exhibitors at the All China Leather Exhibition (ACLE) in Shanghai last fall. The uncertainty of car production and the unpredictability of the global leather market are also issues that chemical companies have to tackle. On the positive side, this situation stimulates innovation and forces chemical companies to prioritize research and development to find solutions which benefit the whole industry. All agree that more education is necessary to increase consumer awareness of the positive properties of leather.
According to Luigi Bianchi, Export Manager of the 60-year-old Milanese Company ALPA, despite steady growth, answering the demand from tanneries requires more energy and sacrifices. Apart from competition from PU and textile, the company’s main challenge is to meet new environmental protection requirements, especially from China which is strictly enforcing its environmental policies. “We do our best to respect the rules and offer chemicals with less impact. We have even withdrawn a number of products from the market,” Bianchi explained. With 15 offices worldwide and a supply of up to 400 products, ALPA covers a wide range of chemicals. “The last four years were difficult but the total balance is still positive,” Bianchi concluded after three busy days at ACLE.
Standards such as REACH require a lot of preparation, from registration to implementation. Small tanneries do not have the budget to meet these requirements, which results in many of them closing and an overall decrease in leather production.
ATC’s Vice-President, Jean-Pierre Gualino
Another manufacturer of a full range of chemicals from soaking to finish exclusively for the leather industry, French family business ATC is similarly affected by the closing of tanneries and the reduction of production in China. “Our business growth in China has slowed down from 5 to 2 to 3 per cent but is compensated by a growing business in other Asian countries,” ATC’s Vice-President, Jean-Pierre Gualino said. “Our primary concern is to comply with new regulations and to create new high-quality chemicals that spare the environment. It is a big task that occupies our France-based Research & Development unit,” he added.
To develop less harmful products which meet strict government rules is also the target of Brother, a Chinese chemical company which took advantage of the ACLE to launch a variety of chromeless products conforming to new government standards. “We enable tanneries to get the same results using fewer chemicals,” explains Brother’s Marketing Specialist, Zheng Jia.
Though they disturb the stability of the Chinese market, stringent environmental requirements such as the GB 20400-2006 which restricts the amount of Azo dyes and formaldehyde present in daily use leather and fur products placed on the Chinese market, or the New Vehicle Interior Air Quality (VIAQ), stimulate creativity and innovation.
Allied Chemicals’ Managing Director Sutham Chusoipin
According to Thai company Allied Chemicals’ Managing Director Sutham Chusoipin, the enterprise owes its success to its unfailing sincerity towards its customers as well as its creativity. For instance, they have launched a type of leather which does not require any finishing and which is nevertheless soft, fluffy and even biodegradable. “The leather industry always goes through cycles. We have seen some of our customers go out of business. Some big companies are growing bigger and small ones are disappearing but I think that thanks to the improvements implemented by the chemical industry, leather will come back in a big way,” said Sutham.
Re-establishing confidence in leather and enabling consumers and brands to make safer leather choices is essential. According to the Swiss Textile Testing Institute (TESTEX), the average consumer carries four leather pieces at all times. 60 per cent of consumers feel it is very important that what they wear and use is void of harmful substances. “Awareness is high but we need to do more to inform consumers about the actions that are taken by the industry to improve the quality and the harmlessness of products used in leather production,” said TESTEX’ Group CMO, Marc Sidler. Due to automation, testing products is faster and more accurate than ever before and in the not-so-far future, thanks to technologies such as block chain it will be possible to certify products throughout the supply chain. Jian Hua Zhang, Zschimmer & Schwarz’ Leather Business Unit Chief Representative, reckons that in future it will even be possible to make waste water drinkable. “If we can turn leather into a very clean industry, demand will stay,” he figured.