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How Oeko-Tex is Curbing Leather’s Environmental Impact

Leather is one of the most consistently in-demand textiles, particularly within the luxury market, but it also poses a big challenge when it comes to traceability.

Because the leather supply chain has so many moving parts—animal husbandry, assembly processes, tanning chemicals and wastewater treatment among them—Oeko-Tex wanted to improve its existing standards. This, the Swiss certification body reasoned, would help manufacturers improve the sustainability of their processes and ultimately deliver an environmentally friendlier product.

In April, Oeko-Tex launched the Sustainable Textile and Leather Production Certification—STeP for short—as an “ideal tool” to alleviate leather processing’s significant environmental impacts.

“With STeP, we can offer an ideal tool to meet the requirements regarding sustainability,” said Georg Dieners, general secretary of Oeko-Tex. “Certification according to STeP by Oeko-Tex is possible for production facilities at all stages of processing from the beam house to the tannery to finishing and making up.”

The long-term aim of STeP certification, he added, is to widely implement not only environmental production improvements across the leather textile sphere but also healthier working conditions.

STeP is uniquely comprehensive, Dieners said, because it gauges all aspects of sustainability in production: chemical management, environmental performance, environmental management, occupational health and safety, social responsibility and quality management. Other standards, both by Oeko-Tex and other organizations, don’t go nearly as far in addressing the complexity of the leather and textile supply chains.

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“We saw that a lot of different aspects have to be taken into account,” Dieners said. “In addition to environmental management, storage of chemicals, building security and working conditions in the factories also play an important role.”

It’s for this reason that Oeko-Tex found it vital to extend the certification toward rules and policies that aren’t being mandated yet.

“Key statutory regulations as well as numerous chemicals that are harmful to health are covered, even if they have not yet been legally regulated,” Dieners said, adding that the certification tests for heavy metals, processing agents, colorants and formaldehyde as well as color fastness. The tests also cover the complete product, including textile components, yarns, fasteners and trims.

The new certification is based, in part, off existing standards and how they address different categories of use. Items for babies and toddlers, for example, are more highly regulated than furnishing materials.

“As with the Standard 100, the following also applies to the leather standard: the more intensive the skin contact, the stricter the limit values that need to be fulfilled,” Dieners said.

Like all Oeko-Tex certifications, STeP will be revisited (and revamped, if needed) at least once a year to ensure it remains in line with regulatory requirements.

In what areas has the fashion industry made the biggest strides in sustainability in the last five years?

“We see the textile industry’s efforts to engage in sustainable production in our data as well: across all six audited areas (chemical management, environmental performance, environmental management, occupational health and safety, social responsibility and quality management), more than 60 percent of the production facilities that are certified according to STeP achieve the highest rating: level 3. The facilities perform particularly well in the areas of social responsibility and occupational health and safety, with more than 80 percent being rated with the highest score.”

Sourcing Journal’s Sustaining Voices celebrates the efforts the apparel industry is making toward securing a more environmentally responsible future through creative innovations, scalable solutions and forward-thinking initiatives that are spinning intent into action.

See more of our Sustaining Voices honorees and their stories, here.