- Substitution – safer chemicals, benefits for business
- Public consultation: tell us about safer alternatives
- Promoting safer alternatives for biocidal products
- Denmark advises on how to limit phthalates of concern
- Chemicals in our life - check ECHA's website
- Chromium-free leather is good for business, consumers and the environment
- Know your chemicals, know your customers
- Thomas Regout - a case of sustainable entrepreneurship
- Murano glass: substituting to stay in business
- Thinking big about substitution
- Guest column: Finding safer chemicals - the American way
- Guest column: Dealing with hexavalent chromium compounds in electroplating
- National helpdesk promoting innovation
- European-wide network supports innovative SMEs
- Funding opportunities for SMEs
- NGO view on substitution: Downstream users can put pressure on their suppliers
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Article related to: People and perspectives
Chromium-free leather is good for business, consumers and the environment
The oldest and most common tanning methods in the leather industry worldwide are chrome-based. A frequently used form is trivalent chromium. Under certain conditions, it can oxidise into hexavalent chromium, which is known for its negative health and environmental impact.
Even if chromium VI is only present in small amounts in the leather, it can cause dermal allergies and asthmatic reactions. In 2011, a small scale Danish study found that almost half of imported leather shoes and sandals contained chromium VI and proposed a restriction under REACH. The restriction has now been published in the Official Journal and will apply from 1 May 2015. From that date, goods or articles containing leather parts that come into contact with the skin, cannot be placed on the EU market if they contain hexavalent chromium in concentrations of 3 mg/kg by weight or more.
The new restriction does not only apply to leather tanneries. Companies importing or manufacturing leather shoes, gloves, clothes, hats and sports equipment as well as furniture, car accessories and straps for watches or bags, may need to change their suppliers or their production process.
Spanish SME Incusa is among those leading the way with a new registered technology, Sanotan, which has effectively replaced chromium compounds with titanium.
Why to innovate?
"Our company employs less than 100 people," explains Incusa's sales manager Angel Gomez, "but we have been in the market for bovine leather since 1932 and around 70% of our production is for export. We sell a lot in northern Europe. Some time ago, when Germany banned leather products containing more than 3 mg of hexavalent chromium per kg, our German clients became interested in alternatives. Most of our customers already require chromium-free leather and Sanotan responds to their needs."
His colleague Marivi Galiana, who led the development work for the new technology, points out another very important reason for Incusa's investment in substitution: the opportunity to eliminate the discharge of toxic chromium residues into waste water. "Our tannery is situated on the border of Albufera lake near Valencia, which is the largest lake in Spain. It is a natural park and protected area, so you can imagine how often we are visited by inspectors and how much we are controlled," she says.
Ms Galiana mentions that Incusa's innovation department has played a very important role. "We want to do things differently from the other companies in the sector. We believe that our titanium-based technology is the future." Another reason for saying that is that the natural reserves of titanium are larger than those of chromium. Titanium is also a sub-product of other industries like ceramics, so it will always be available.
Titanium compounds are still more expensive than chromium compounds, but the Sanotan technology has achieved a reduction in chemical consumption, in water and energy consumption, and in CO2 emissions released in the environment. "This leads to a productivity gain," Ms Galiana points out.
Changing the production process was not easy and it took nearly two years to get the new technology ready for market. At first, the quality of the leather was not satisfactory, but the company continued with the research. "Our management and commercial departments were very supportive. From the very beginning, they also realised that this was a fantastic opportunity for Incusa," Marivi Galiana states.
EU funding and support
When the prototype was ready, the Footwear Technological Institute INESCOP helped Incusa to obtain nearly €350 000 in funding from the European Union's Eco-Innovation Programme to bring the new titanium-based technology to the market. The EU-funded project TiLeather included laboratory testing for quality, which showed that Sanotan leather meets the European eco-label criteria. It avoids most of the environmental problems caused by traditional tanning. It is hypoallergenic and comfortable for wearing.
Three shoe manufacturing companies were also involved in the project to test the new technology for children's and casual shoes, and for security footwear for professional use. "The results exceeded our expectations," says project coordinator Joaquin Ferrer from INESCOP.
In 2011 and 2012, one million pairs of Sanotan leather shoes were produced and sold in Spain, France and other EU countries, reducing the use of chromium compounds by 25.5 tonnes and the CO2 emissions by 35 tonnes.
Without the TiLeather project, it would have taken Incusa much longer to introduce the new technology in Europe. "It is not only because of the funding, but also because of the opportunity to work directly with our customers. They were all motivated and came up with very good ideas about how to go ahead. Cooperation was great," says Angel Gomez.
His advice to other SMEs is to work very closely with their suppliers and customers if they want to succeed – and not only for substitution.
Incusa has increased its total sales and Sanotan now represents around 25% of the total production of the company. The EU-funded project ended two years ago and the company has now registered the Sanotan technology as a trademark.
"Using this technology helped us reach a wider range of customers. We are now working with big brands, exporting to the USA and moving to new markets. Some examples are leather straps for Swiss watches, baseball gloves and horse saddles. There has also been interest from the aviation industry," says Mr Gomez.
Some of Incusa's clients are even sending Sanotan samples to their suppliers outside the EU, for example, to India and Morocco. "This gives them reassurance that if they have to stock the leather, they will not have a problem to be on the market, since their products will not contain chromium compounds that could oxidise to unauthorised levels of hexavalent chromium".
Sanotan has already received national and international prizes for protecting the environment and for developing innovative materials for the fashion industry. Angel Gomez sees that the pressure to move away from hazardous chemicals will continue to play an important role in the business strategy of Incusa.
"This is good not only for the environment and our customers, but it also gives a clear direction for our innovation. It helps us to be different and to compete with other tanneries across the world," he concludes.
Sanotan - a new technology which replaces chromium compounds with titanium - has won national and international prizes for protecting the environment and for developing innovative materials for the fashion industry. Image: Fotolia.
- Commission regulation (EU) No 301/2014, amending Annex XVII of REACH
- TiLeather project
- Ti my shoes – EuroNews report
- List of restrictions table
Text and interviews by Virginia Mercouri
Top image: Fotolia
Editorial note: This article was updated on 5 June 2014. The Danish study in the second paragraph was newly referred to as "small scale" and a link to the study was added. The following sentence was deleted from the end of the third paragraph because it has been misinterpreted: "Industry has 12 months to prepare and decide on which alternative solution to use – or come up with new ones."
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