Why choose leather produced in Sweden?
Leather is durable, strong, functional, comfortable and, we believe, very beautiful. Leather that is produced in the correct way contributes to a sustainable society. Hides and skins from cattle, sheep and reindeer that are raised for food—that is, meat and dairy products—provide the raw material for Swedish tanneries. Companies thereby further the use of a byproduct and refine it into a material with a long lifetime. Leather is made to last.
Questions and answers about tanning
The tanning industry is a small industrial sector in Sweden and there are only four tanneries/skin-dressers working at industrial scale at the moment. These companies have specialised in different areas and do therefore not compete with each other.
The tanneries in Sweden are Elmo Sweden who primarily focus on production of upholstery leather to the furniture and automotive industry, Tärnsjö Garveri who specialised in vegetable tanned leather, Kero Leather who primarily process reindeer skins which is a unique raw material and Tranås Skinnberedning processing sheepskins.
The Swedish tanning industry was an important industrial sector at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century. During this time, the tanneries were developed from being craftmanship to industries and as a result the number of tanneries were reduced. Despite this, there were more than 100 tanneries in Sweden in the beginning of the 20th Century.
The major reduction for the tanning industry in Sweden happened after the 2nd World War and depended on several factors. A major reason was that the Swedish shoe industry had a major crisis and several major shoe factories using Swedish leather were closed down. Other reasons for the decline were more stringent environmental demands on the tanneries. In addition, the labour costs increased substantially while a major part of the import of leather was low-cost leather from Asia.
However, the tanneries in Sweden have managed rather well during the last 20 years and the number of tanneries has not changed although some tanneries have been restructured during this period.
The future looks bright for the Swedish tanneries since the tanneries have found their special niche and they are very competitive internationally having a very high quality on their products.
The Swedish tanneries cooperate together with the other Nordic tanneries in environmental issues. As a result of this, the Nordic tanneries usually comment proposals for environmental legislation within the EU during the hearing period, the tanneries are updated about new initiatives in the environmental area and they are exchanging experiences on best practises through an intense networking.
Most leather worldwide is today produced in Asia and China is the biggest producer of leather. In Europe the tanning industry is still very important in Italy. Around 60 % of the European leather production is taking place in Italy and Italy is still the third largest producer of leather in the world.
The Swedish tanneries are in the forefront regarding sustainable production of leather in the world and are internationally often mentioned as good examples of sustainable production. There are two reasons for this. The first is due to the stringent environmental legislation in Sweden but in addition, the Swedish tanneries have decided to choose environmentally friendly technologies in their production.
The Swedish tanneries are regulated by the Swedish Environment Code and in particular the Ordinance on Environmental Licensing. The tanneries need an environmental permit from the authorities. They have to comply with environmental demands set up by the authorities and in general these conditions are harder and more detailed the larger the tannery is. It is common in Sweden that the inspections at site is carried out by the regional authorities. In addition, the Swedish tanneries are following the rules of EU Regulations like the chemical legislation (REACH).
It should be noted that it is only companies with production in Sweden that follows Swedish Environmental legislation since only Swedish companies get Swedish environmental permits and these requirements may differ due to local conditions. Furthermore, environmental inspections by authorities are only carried out in Sweden.
No, hides and skins are a by-product from the meat industry and the availability of hides and skins are decided by the meat consumption. The value of hides/skins corresponds to only a minor part of the value of the animal (usually 1 – 3 %) and has even decreased during the last years.
A new scientific publication from USA was published in 2021. The study is based on data from 1995 – 2019 and shows that the number of animals that are slaughtered was not affected by the price of the hides meaning that the number of slaughtered animals is not increased even if the price for hides is increasing.
The demand for leather has decreased during the last years while the consumption of meat globally not has decreased. As a consequence, hides have been landfilled in USA and Australia instead of being used for leather production. During 2019, 5.5 million hides were wasted in USA and in 2020 around 4.8 million hides were wasted in USA instead of going to leather production. These hides were instead either destroyed by burning or discarded in landfills. Leather has often been replaced by different synthetic materials (mostly plastic based on oil). It would have been possible to produce 86.4 million pairs of shoes or 1.6 million sofas from the hides that were wasted in USA during 2020.
The animal welfare is important for tanneries even if it is not always easy to convince slaughterhouses and farmers about this. The quality of the hides/skins is improving if the animals have a good life while the quality of the hides/skins are reduced if the animals become stressed. As a consequence of this, the quality of the leather will also deteriorate.
Today, there are some focus and new initiatives on traceability of hides and skins used for leather manufacturing even down to which farm the animal was raised in. This will facilitate for the consumer to know that the animals have been well treated. Commercial systems for traceability are on its way.
Leather production is a potentially polluting industry and in many parts of the world such as Bangladesh, tanneries are creating major environmental problems.
However, there are many environmentally friendly technologies where the environmental impact from leather production can be reduced substantially. Nevertheless, there will always remain some pollution from the industrial processes and therefore modern and efficient processes to treat the wastewater and utilise waste products have been developed.
It can be noted that waste from tanneries in Sweden is used to produce biogas with good results and also used to produce gelatine which is used for production of sweets.
Actual figures on how much the environmental load can be reduced by using environmentally friendlier alternatives can be obtained from the Swedish Tanners Association.
Tanneries are like most industries using water in the processes and after these processes the water will become wastewater which must be cleaned before it is discharged to the recipient.
The Swedish tanneries are using different strategies to clean their wastewater but the strategies have in common that the water should be cleaned in accordance with the stringent environmental legislation in Sweden. Two tanneries have their own wastewater treatment plant treating the waste water before it is discharged to the recipient. One tannery makes a pre-treatment at site before the water is discharged to the municipal treatment plant. The fourth tannery is discharging its wastewater directly to the municipal treatment plant. The municipal treatments plants in Sweden receiving water from tanneries are designed to clean water from tanneries and the tanneries are, of course, paying for the extra cost to clean their wastewater.
Tanneries are using many different chemicals during leather manufacturing. The Swedish tanneries are following the European chemical legislation called REACH. This means that chemicals that may be dangerous either to health (both for workers and consumers) or environment have been substituted by less dangerous alternatives.
There is an ongoing development regarding chemicals and new scientific knowledge may show that chemicals that previously were considered to be safe in some cases may have negative effects on environment or health. The Swedish tanneries carefully follow the technical development and in case scientific studies would indicate that a chemical which is used may have negative effects a thorough development work in cooperation with chemical suppliers will start to substitute the chemical with a better alternative. This means that the Swedish tanneries are in the forefront of the legislative development and aim at substituting chemicals before their use eventually will be restricted
No, none of the above mentioned chemicals are used during tanning in Sweden. Sometimes these chemicals are mentioned in connection with tanning and we will shortly explain why.
Arsenic disulfide was used for many years ago in connection with unhairing of hides. The chemical has not been used for very long time by the tanning sector. Today, for instance sodium sulphide is used instead.
Small amounts of Cadmium could previously be found in some pigments (yellow colour) but these pigments have since long been replaced by other pigments during leather manufacturing.
Hexavalent chromium which is allergenic and can also give rise to lung cancer during inhalation is not used in tanning. The far most used tanning method in the world is tanning using trivalent chromium. Trivalent chromium is a different chemical form of chromium compared to hexavalent chromium having very different properties.
Small amounts of trivalent chromium may be transformed to hexavalent chromium during certain process conditions. This is well-known in the tanning sector and it is also known why this happens and how to avoid the formation of hexavalent chromium. The Swedish tanneries are strictly following the guidelines how to avoid the formation of hexavalent chromium and hexavalent chromium is therefore not present in leather produced in Sweden. However, hexavalent chromium may in some cases be present in leather imported to Sweden. It is not allowed to market or sell products with leather containing hexavalent chromium in the EU. Swedish authorities such as the Swedish Chemical Agency are often controlling this by making analyses of leather on the Swedish market.
Leather is a unique material coming from hides or skins that have been tanned. There is a European standard (EN 15987) clearly defining leather.
Unfortunately, there are some manufacturers of alternative materials to leather that wrongly call their material for leather since many consumers connect leather with high quality products. Examples are vegan leather, apple leather and pineapple leather.
The tanning sector has no problem if alternative materials to leather are developed but believe it is important that the consumers are informed about what type of material it is. It can be noted that vegan leather often is a plastic material and according to our opinion, it is important that consumers are aware about this.
No, it is not correct. Leather manufacturing consists of many processes and all tanneries independently of tanning method are using chemicals for instance in unhairing, dyeing and fatliquoring of leather.
Even if we just look at the tanning process itself, the statement is not correct. Vegetable tanning agents consist of extract from bark, trees or plants but even these extracts consist of chemicals.
Leather can be used for many purposes. The main use of leather today is for shoe manufacturing and around half (50 %) of all leather produced is used for shoe manufacturing. The use of leather for shoes has decreased during the last years and leather has experienced hard competition from alternative materials. Another important use of leather is in the clothing sector and around 20 % of all leather is used for clothing.
The furniture and automotive industries are also major users of leather and slightly below 20 % of all leather produced is used to furniture and automotive. In particular, leather to the automotive industry has increased during the last years.
Finally, around 15 – 20 % of leather are used for other purposes including gloves. handbags, straps, saddles and much more.
The term ”vegan leather” is actually not correct and misleading since it is not leather according to the international standard. The term is often used for material that are supposed to imitate leather but are manufactured without animal products. The material often consists of PU (polyurethane) and is therefore a plastic product. This is usually not mentioned and the manufacturers try to incorrectly market the material as an environmentally friendly alternative to leather and at the same time take advantage of the image of leather as a material with high quality.
There are also a number of other materials on the market that is partly based on natural materials (e.g. pineapple leather and apple leather). These materials often consist of two plastic layers and the natural material has been included between the plastic sheets.
A scientific study from Germany was published in the beginning of 2021. The study showed that leather is overall the superior material (the materials were investigated for properties relevant for shoes uppers). There were alternative materials with good results on a few properties but overall, they could not compete with leather. In addition, environmentally harmful substances like phthalates were found in several alternative materials to leather. A copy of the scientific report can be obtained from the Swedish Tanners Association.
Highly skilled craftmanship a strength of Swedish tanneries
Leather manufacture today is a highly advanced, sustainable and environmentally aware processing industry. Regardless of advanced technology, human interaction is still the most important element in Swedish tanneries. Both manual intervention and expertise are required to continually assess and manage each individual hide or skin. The competitive strength of Swedish tanneries is largely due to the superior knowledge and lengthy experience of tannery employees, laying the foundation of high-quality finished products.
Demand does not determine supply of leather and skins
The demand for leather, sheepskin and reindeer skins is not what determines the supply of these materials. The supply of hides and skins is determined by our consumption of dairy and meat products. Instead of incinerating hides and skins or sending them to landfill, neither of which can be called sustainable, tanneries process them into a biodegradable material that offers consumers comfort and beauty.
The skin tells how the animal was treated
The well-being of the animal is important for tanneries producing leather, sheepskin and reindeer skins of high quality, because the skin tells how the animal was treated. From a leather-producing perspective, leather production and animal protection go hand in hand. The production of high-quality leather empowers tanneries to promote high-grade animal protection. Tracking systems make it possible for the leather industry to enter into a dialogue with farmers on this important issue.
Swedish leather and skins fulfill the EU and Swedish requirements on sustainability and the environment
As a manufacturing industry in Sweden, Swedish tanneries adhere to the laws and directives that apply in the EU and Sweden. The leather, sheepskin and reindeer skins that are produced in Sweden fulfill EU and Swedish requirements on sustainability and the environment.
The member companies of the Swedish Tannery Association use hides and skins from cattle, sheep and reindeer that are almost 100 % raised in Scandinavia.
Leather is a unique material that offers a wide range of possible uses. Swedish tanneries supply leather for products including shoes, bags, wallets, furniture, the interiors of cars, trains and airplanes, and reindeer skins and sheepskin.
The manufacturing process
The processing of hides and skins into leather can be separated into three stages:
Preprocessing, which we in the business often call the liming processes, prepares the skins for the actual tanning process. Hair, salt, dirt and fats are removed, fats are separated out, and the skins are laid to soak.
Tanning stabilizes the leather and makes it flexible, durable and resistant to spoiling. Many tanneries use large drums where the skins are rotated with water and chemicals during tanning.
Postprocessing typically involves yet another tanning, then dyeing and greasing to give the leather specific textures and colors.
Approximately 75% of all leather manufacture in the world today uses trivalent chromium (chromium III), because it is a dependable element if used correctly and is even found in dietary supplements. It is sometimes mistakenly claimed that the leather industry uses hexavalent chromium (chromium VI). Hexavalent chromium (chromium VI) is not being used. Explicit and clear guidelines on the use of trivalent chromium prevent the development of hexavalent chromium during the leather-manufacturing process, and those guidelines are strictly adhered to by Swedish tanneries. The chrome-tanning process, like other tanning methods, is under continual development in terms of absorption, use, reuse, water consumption and waste management.
Chrome-tanned leather products are long-lasting and can be used year after year without altering their special leather qualities.
Vegetable tanning is the oldest tanning method and uses plants as the tannin. Vegetable-tanned leather has a unique esthetic quality and ages beautifully.
Alternative tanning methods are tanning methods that do not use chromium. The most common method is aldehyde tanning, which uses glutaraldehyde. Aldehyde tanning is often combined with other, synthetic tanning elements.
Currently, three basic tanning methods are in use: chrome tanning, vegetable tanning and chemical tanning without chromium.
Several studies using a life-cycle approach have found that the three tanning methods are very similar in terms of how they affect the environment and the resources they require.
If you want to know more about the manufacture of leather, sheepskin and reindeer skins in Sweden, please see the following links to our member companies.