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How to Achieve Sustainability in Leather Production

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Natural leather has been highly valued by consumers for centuries. Since the beginning of mankind, animal skins have been refined into leather and used to make saddles, shoes, bags and clothing, among other things. With its properties such as breathability and durability, leather is still an unbeatable material.

The three-dimensional fiber structure of natural skin, its elasticity, tear resistance and adaptability are unique to date. Leather shoes, for example, give way when the foot swells during the day. They absorb sweat and pass part of it onto the outside. This keeps your feet dry, warm and healthy. After wearing, the leather almost shrinks back to its original shoe shape, releasing moisture. With good care, a leather shoe lasts forever.

Over the years, the production of leather has changed fundamentally. What used to be based on purely manual production is now largely taken over by machines specifically developed for the leather industry. A skin or fur must pass through about 40 processing stages until the biological raw material has become the natural product leather.

Large quantities of water are required for this. In addition, there is increased environmental pollution due to increased CO2 emissions and the use of chemicals that can enter the environment and groundwater if handled incorrectly.

Many leather production plants worldwide have already taken the severe effects on our environment to heart and are therefore trying to counteract the damage with their actions in their own companies. But what does sustainable leather production actually look like?

Energy-efficient and resource saving

It makes sense to use fur and skins from indigenous farm animals as early as the procurement of the raw materials. Short transportation routes reduce emissions and ensure the good quality of the leather. In order to reduce the chloride pollution of water bodies, it is also advisable to use cooled raw materials instead of salted ones.

In order to preserve and color the perishable skin material, chemicals are inevitably used that have to be chemically or mechanically filtered out of the water in sewage treatment facilities or converted into non-toxic substances. This means that the water used can be reused in the course of a manufacturing process for various steps in which no direct fresh water is required.

By-products from leather production—such as folded chips and unnecessary skin parts—can also be used in an ecologically sensible way. The folded chips are used for further processing into leather fiber materials, the trimming can be supplied to the glue and gelatine industry as well as biogas facilities as a valuable raw material.

STeP by OEKO-TEX®

To ensure that more and more leather production and processing companies worldwide implement environmentally friendly production processes on a permanent basis, improve the occupational safety of their employees and create socially acceptable working conditions throughout the entire supply chain, the international OEKO-TEX® Association works with its independent certification system STeP. In this case, STeP stands for “Sustainable Textile and Leather Production” and helps companies to continuously improve their environmental performance and social responsibility.

The prerequisite for STeP certification is the fulfillment of minimum requirements in the following six areas of the company:

  • Environmental management
  • Environmental performance
  • Social responsibility
  • Health protection and occupational Safety
  • Quality management
  • Chemicals management

The STeP certification is possible for production companies of all processing stages: This includes beamhouse, tanning, retanning, dyeing and fatliquoring, leather finishing, the making up of intermediate and final leather products as well as logistics.

To ensure global comparability, the STeP criteria apply uniformly around the globe. In addition, they are continuously analyzed, evaluated and updated as necessary (e.g. in the light of new market developments, legal requirements and scientific findings). In order to ensure compliance with the requirements on site, trained OEKO-TEX® auditors carry out control tests. These can be carried out both – announced and unannounced.

Only if a company meets all requirements in the six business areas it receives the STeP certification and a detailed scoring report on its achieved sustainability level, an overall assessment and an individual assessment of all six business areas analyzed.

This offers the advantage that the companies can have their efforts with regard to sustainable production verified by the OEKO-TEX® member institutes as independent bodies and continuously improve their environmental performance, social responsibility and efficiency through dynamic further development of the benchmarks.

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