Companies / Aziende,  Environment/Ambiente,  Fabrics/Tessuti,  Fashion/Moda,  Modern slavery / Schiavitù moderna

The impact of leather and tanneries: what we don’t know and who is inside is scared of telling us

When I saw DW’s documentary on the dark side of fashion-luxury, I was sick for several days. It’s a punch in the stomach. I wanted to write about it in an article, but to do it in the best possible way I wanted to involve Francesco Gesualdi who in that documentary tells of a report made on leather and tanneries, hindered in several ways. With the aim of spreading what emerged even to those who do not have the patience to read the report to the end, I asked for his help to highlight the most relevant points, what we need to know: it is too important to be ignored it and go beyond.

Francesco Gesualdi is an activist, essayist and coordinator of the Centro Nuovo Modello di Sviluppo in Vecchiano (PI) who deals with social and environmental imbalances at an international level. The Center also carries out research on the social and environmental behavior of companies to inform consumers and proposes actions to oppose the mechanisms that generate injustice and unhealthy development.

It is a delicate issue, that of the skin. As is that of food consumption of meat. Each of us makes personal choices, also regarding sustainability, and we always prefer to use very calm tones, inviting us to take one step at a time. However, it is our responsibility to make known the impact of fabrics and materials and we cannot fail to mention leather. Respecting everyone’s choices, we have the task of informing.

It is not just a question of animal abuse, of which we retrace the main aspects with Francesco. There are also other dark sides of an industry that we are afraid to talk about, as Francesco tells us, who deals with these issues to try to understand and make known what happens behind the products we buy.

In the end I decided to leave all of Francesco’s intervention entirely, without synthesizing. I thank him for his patience and willingness to highlight the most salient aspects of the report. We also involved Deborah Lucchetti, president of the Clothes Campaign in Italy, for an in-depth study on leather. We asked both of us what we can do as more aware consumers and what brands can do as more responsible producers.

At the beginning, the report touches the issue of the environmental impact of livestock farms, from which leather originates. The water consumed, the food used, the occupied land and the waste produced. Francesco, is there any data or aspect you would like to emphasize?

Meat is an increasingly discussed sector, not only for the mistreatment of animals, but also for its impact on health and the environment.

In 2015, the announcement by the World Health Organization that included red meat among the risk factors for cancer onset caused a sensation, but various studies had already associated high meat consumption with colorectal cancers. Similarly, the correlation between livestock farms and climate change is now documented. FAO estimates that greenhouse gases emitted by animal farms amount to 8.3 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent, equal to 15% of all greenhouse gases produced by human action. To the methane emitted directly by ruminants, the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the production of soy, as well as corn and other cereals fed to animals should be added to the count. It is estimated that between 35% and 40% of the entire world production of cereals is used feeding animals, a share destined to increase considering that the consumption of meat is on the rise. In conclusion, we dedicate 4 billion hectares to animal breeding, equal to 77% of agricultural land and 44% of agricultural and forest land.
And finally the consumption of water. It takes 15,000 liters (15 cubic meters) of water to produce one kilo of beef. Basically you need a small pool full of water for four steaks. A fact that seems impossible until we examine what a beast eats during its life cycle: 1,300 kilos of grain and 7,200 kilos of forage. It takes a lot of water to make all this stuff grow. In addition, 24 cubic meters of water must be added to quench the beast’s thirst and 7 cubic meters to keep it clean. The conclusion is that to produce one kilo of beef it takes 6.5 kilos of grains, 36 kilos of fodder and 15 cubic meters of water. And there is less and less water in the world”.


The players of the tanning industry claim to play a positive environmental role, because they eliminate a waste product generated by the meat industry. Is really like what they say?

“The tanning industrialists claim to play a beneficial role for environmental purposes, because they free us from a waste produced by the meat industry as if they were scavengers. But the round of money that revolves around leather is so massive that it remains difficult to conceive it as a sector that relies on the production of leftovers by others. Just think that it represents the basis on which an industrial empire is built, strongly connected to luxury, consisting of shoes, handbags, belts, wallets, furniture and car upholstery, etc., for a total turnover estimated at over one trillion dollars a year. In conclusion, without the skin a world would collapse.
Leafing through any magazine dedicated to leather, tanneries’ owners complain about the shortage of raw materials everywhere. So it is more likely to imagine the two sectors, the meat industry and the leather industry, as two allies working together to grow the breeding and slaughtering industry”.

United States, Brazil, China are the major producers of raw hides. Europe follows. What is Italy’s role in the sector that emerges from the report?

Italy does not have large livestock farms: with six million head of cattle raised, it represents just 0.36% of the world total. Consequently, the production of raw hides is also reduced: just 1% of the total in 2013. Nevertheless, it has a long and lively tanning tradition, so in terms of weight it contributes 9% of the world production of leather for sole and 7.4% of the world production of tanned cowhide for all other purposes. In monetary terms, it represents even 17% of the total world production and 30% of exports of finished leathers.
Over the past 40 years, the Italian tanning industry has undergone profound transformations. Traditionally it worked raw hides which brought to finished hides through the various stages of tanning. But since the eighties of the last century, there has been a growing abandonment of the first tanning phase, to focus on the final phases. A change due to two great phenomena. On the one hand, the introduction of stricter environmental laws that forced companies to make investments that not everyone wanted or could support. On the other hand, the increase in the price of raw leather due to the increase in duties by the producing countries as a strategy to promote their tanning industry.
The result is that today, of all the cowhide produced in Italy, only 25% is obtained from the internal processing of raw leather. All the rest is only retanning of wet blue (ed: chrome tanned leathers still wet) from abroad. This quota, added to the raw leather, leads to the conclusion that 97% of the Italian produced leather originates from raw leather of foreign origin“.


In our country, tanning activity is concentrated in 3 districts: Arzignano in Veneto, along the Chiampo Valley in the province of Vicenza, Santa Croce in Tuscany, between the provinces of Pisa and Florence, and Solofra in Campania, between Naples and Avellino. In particular, the municipality of Arzignano, which contributes 52% to the production figure.
Santa Croce, which supplies 28% of total production, focuses more on high-end production geared towards footwear and leather goods. You have chosen to study in the Santa Croce district. What kind of realities are there in the area? Which ones did you investigate?

“In the Santa Croce area the tanning activity has a very ancient presence, but it assumes the characteristics of an industrial district since 1800. To better understand the physiognomy of the district, it should be borne in mind that to obtain a finished leather the contribution of processes beyond tanning in the strict sense. Briefly, the working phases of the leather can be divided into three sections: pre-tanning, tanning and finishing. The pre-tanning is used to free the leather from dirt, hair, residues of meat and fat. Tanning is used to transform the leather into a rot-proof material. The finishing is used to give the leather the desired aesthetic appearance such as thickness, color, shine, impermeability and much more.
In total, there are 240 tanneries in the Santa Croce district, most of which are small. Some of them are equipped to carry out all the work phases within them, but this is a rarity. Most have only the machinery strictly necessary for the tanning phase. For this reason, many other laboratories have sprung up in the district, over 500, for the execution of specific processes. These are the so-called subcontractors that the tanneries use for the execution of preliminary and final type processes that require special machinery.
According to data provided by the Chamber of Commerce, in 2014 the district was made up of 1,027 companies, 77% directly involved in leather processing, 18.5% dedicated to commercial activities and 4.5% to supply of machinery.

The situation is more complex with respect to employment because there are two large categories of employees: those directly employed by manufacturing companies and those hired by temporary work agencies, also called temporary workers. In truth, the situation is a bit confusing because we had to use several sources that are not always perfectly consistent with each other. In the end, the figure that seems closest to reality is that in the district, in 2014, 12,698 people work, of which 9,247 (72%) directly employed by manufacturing companies and 3,451 (28%) employed by temporary agencies“.

I would like you to tell us about the situation in the district. Let’s start with illegal work. 48.6% of companies in which you have encountered the phenomenon is an impressive figure. What is behind this percentage?

“Despite the wide range of forms of recruitment offered by the law, the district continues to resort to undeclared work, which is the most serious form of violation of workers’ rights because it deprives them of accident insurance and payments for pensions.
In Italy, the task of verifying the application of the law, in the field of employment relationships, is delegated to the territorial authority called ‘Provincial Labor Directorate’. Inspectors intervene on their own initiative or upon complaint. From 1 January 2011 to 31 December 2014, 181 companies (tanneries and subcontractors) were inspected in the Santa Croce district (with the exclusion of the municipality of Fucecchio) for a total of 999 workers. Of these, 70% were of Italian nationality and 30% immigrants. Overall, irregularities were found concerning 208 workers, including 112 totally illegal. 43% of the undeclared workers were immigrants. Among the possible forms of irregularities – denounces Loris Mainardi, a union exponent – is that of hiring workers with reduced-time or part-time contracts, and then having them work full-time”. Half a day with a contract and half a day off. A growing habit, according to the CGIL. “The salary of these workers – continues Mainardi – will not be all in the paycheck, with significant savings both in tax and social security contributions by the companies”.

What other important aspect does the report highlight that as consumers or creators of sustainable fashion we should know?

“On its long journey from raw leather to finished product, leather goes through many stages and passes through many factories. Each process presents a potential health risk for workers, which however becomes a real threat based on the choices made by individual companies. Therefore, the actual risk depends on the modernity of the systems, the presence of protective devices, compliance with hygiene standards, the training of employees. The reality of Santa Croce is too fragmented to be able to give a detailed picture of the situation. Modern tanneries, of large and attentive to the regulations in force, they coexist with small tanneries and small subcontractors who unwillingly invest in hygiene and safety and indeed try to increase their earnings by defrauding the tax authorities, hiring illegally, violating accident prevention laws.
By general admission, the first stages of leather processing are those that expose you to greater fatigue and discomfort due to the handling of heavy, dirty material, laden with residues of meat and fat. In fact, the fleshing and splitting workers are entitled to an allowance of 5.37 euros per month, but judging it unattractive, the Italians prefer to leave it to immigrants.

Since it is necessary to lift and move very heavy skins, due to the high water content, muscle and skeletal pathologies are frequent among workers in this first phase. In 2011, the Section of Occupational Medicine responsible for the Santa Croce district conducted a study on 101 fleshing workers, with an average age of 44, of which 37 were foreigners. Of all workers examined, 31 tested positive for spinal disorders.
Expanding the view to the entire tanning sector of Santa Croce, from 2009 to 2013 there were 720 accidents with an annual distribution of a fluctuating type. Considering that 528 involved Italian workers, at first glance it seems that the most affected are the Italians. But by comparing the number of injured persons with the number of employed persons of the same nationality, we find that the incidence of accidents among Italian workers is 7.6%, while among immigrants it is 14.4%.
In addition to accidents, there is the problem of occupational diseases in tanneries. That is, of those disturbances that arise over time, due to contact with dangerous substances, by staying in unhealthy environments, by carrying out tiring work. There were 493 cases of occupational diseases recognized in the Santa Croce district from 1997 to 2014, which can be divided into five major groups: musculoskeletal diseases, tumors, dermatitis, hearing disorders, respiratory diseases. Musculoskeletal diseases are the most numerous.
And finally the environmental problem. The tanning industry has a great impact on the environment, not only for the consequences caused by the livestock that supplies leather, but also for the large consumption of water and the huge amount of biological and chemical waste that is generated during the industrial phase. The tanneries in the Santa Croce district consume about 6 million cubic meters of water per year, mainly drawn from the groundwater found in the subsoil.
From every ton of raw leather, from 200 to 250 kg of chrome tanned leather can be obtained, which overall may require the use of a quantity of water ranging from 15 to 50 tons, 500 kg of chemicals and between 9.3 and 42 GJ of energy. Therefore, for each ton of processed leather, between 60 and 250 tons of polluted water are produced (containing, among other substances, about 20-30 kg of chromium and 50 kg of sulphide), between 1,800 and 3,650 kg of solid residues, 2,500 kg of sludge, between 4 and 50 kg of solvents emitted into the air”.

What is the aspect that touched you most when carrying out this survey?

“The sense of fear. Throughout the survey we perceived the workers’ fear of talking. Fear of telling stories, of describing their working conditions, of listing the abuses they are forced into. Fear of losing their job. Above all by immigrants, especially those with expired residence permits who are therefore forced to work illegally, accepting any condition: the bitter fruit of the Bossi-Fini law which requires a job to issue a residence permit, but requires a residence permit to obtain a job.
But we also found the sense of silence among trade union leaders, political authorities, labor offices, Inail, the ASL, the Labor Inspectorate. In Santa Croce the tanners are a power, nobody wants to turn them against them. Even the most banal statistical data of an economic, employment and commodity nature are difficult to find. All delay, all postpone and in the end all are silent. For fear of retaliation: in terms of employment, in terms of tax revenues, in terms of charitable contributions. But in silence the abuses continue”.

In January 2016, the CYS consortium was informed by DG DEVCO that two European business associations, the European Confederation of the Shoe Industry (CEC) and the European Confederation of the Leather Industry (COTANCE), had lodged a complaint with DG GROWTH (the EC Department for Economic and Industrial Development) on the contents of the report. What happened?

“This is a very long story lasting about a year, described in detail in the introductory part of our report. It must be said that the report on tanneries in Italy was part of a project on the defense of workers’ rights, co-financed by the Union European. The contract expressly provided for the type of research we carried out. But the results did not please the tanning industry which mobilized at every level (local, national, European) to denigrate us and force us to withdraw the report. There was a complaint at some offices of the European Commission that we were recalled and induced to withdraw the report.
But since there was no basis for formal objections either from a content point of view or from a contractual point of view, the thing was played on an unofficial level by the offices of the European Commission: just enough to make us to understand that if we did not comply with the request of the tanners we would have had trouble in terms of financing, but without ever telling us in black and white. And after a long back and forth, two unregulated meetings in Brussels, an intervention by some European parliamentarians to ensure that funding was not interrupted, and above all many phone calls that leave no traces, in the end the group of NGOs that carried out the project decided to capitulate, extrapolating the report from the co-financed project, with all the consequences also on the financial level: the expenses for the report were transferred to the project by the participants.
A sad story, that has shown us in a practical way how close is the link between the business world and the offices of the European Commission. A system of power against which neither validity of data nor seriousness of research count. The only thing that counts is the balance of power and in Brussels the lobbies of force have a lot”.

Why is the report hampered?

The tanners did not like the report, and consequently not even the offices of the European Commission, because it highlights that even in Europe, companies violate the laws and mistreat workers.
Reports on the workers’ rights not respected are fine when it comes to China, Cambodia, Bangladesh, not when it comes to what is happening in the heart of the European Union. Then a thousand quibbles are pulled out and when the scientific and legal quibbles cannot be invoked because everything has been done correctly, then the most subtle means of pressure are used, those that leave no trace and that if you try to tell them make you risk a libel complaint”.

What can we as consumers do?

Keep informed and choose. Keep informed to know what happens, who does not behave responsibly and then act. In three ways: supporting those who provides counter information; implementing responsible consumption in order to exert pressure on companies that behave badly by excluding them from our purchases; participating in movements such as the Clean Clothes Campaign, which, outside the schemes of power, defend the rights of workers”.

And as a brand that is committed to sustainability?

They must get out of hypocrisy, stop making high-sounding statements just to defend their image. On the contrary, they must put into practice the demands made by groups in defense of human rights, workers’ rights, in defense of the environment. Fashion brands, although they try to disengage more and more from the direct management of production activities, continue to maintain great responsibility and great power with respect to how to produce. Production is becoming more and more outsourced, but they – the brands – continue to be the puppet master, determining the quality of work and the impact on the environment of the entire production chain. They do so by paying too low prices to subcontractors, imposing delivery times that are too short, continuing not to include social and environmental clauses in their supply contracts. In a word, brands must stop being part of the problem and turn into part of the solution by behaving more responsibly: paying higher prices to subcontractors, demanding more dignified working conditions and salaries from subcontractors, equipping themselves with an apparatus that verifies quality social and environmental aspects of the production made for them, opening up to transparency. Which does not mean telling only the things that make a good impression, but everything, including shame. Only in this way will we understand that we are faced with companies that want to be serious”.


Thank you Francesco for taking your time to delve into this phenomenon and also for telling it here, in order to spread the main messages of the “A tough story of leather” report.

We asked Deborah Lucchetti, president of the Clean Clothes campaign, for a point of view on the leather issue, on which research has continued in other countries of the world.

Deborah, are there any other aspects related to leather that you want to bring to attention?

“The leather industry has a huge environmental and social impact in the world. The regions where tanneries are located, particularly in countries with more inefficient regulatory and control systems, are characterized by abnormal levels of water and soil pollution, environmental damage and health risks for workers and surrounding communities.
Our research has highlighted how these problems arise from careless treatment of wastewater and solid waste deriving from the tanning process. The most significant risk is related to the use of Chromium III which in certain circumstances can turn into the more toxic and carcinogenic Chromium VI (CrVI) and become a serious threat to workers.
If solid waste and untreated wastewater containing Cr (VI) are abandoned on open land, they can contaminate surrounding water bodies, including drinking water, for decades. In addition, irrigation water rich in Cr (VI) and sewage sludge can damage the land and crops surrounding the tanneries, thus putting the survival of the entire population at risk.
Our research also revealed a number of occupational health and safety issues. Ailments such as chronic fever, respiratory problems and eye and skin irritation caused by direct contact with chemical agents are common, also due to the chronic absence of personal protective equipment and safety training.
Added to this are extremely precarious working conditions, starvation wages, irregular employment contracts and the absence of social and health insurance protection. This combination of illness and financial insecurity forces many of those interviewed into a daily battle for survival, a situation which has been further aggravated by the pandemic crisis”.

I ask also you: what can we consumers do to stop the phenomenon?

“Consumers should first of all put on the shoes of active citizenship. Get information and support public awareness and pressure campaigns to force companies to behave responsibly. Think many times before buying and, in case of actual need, carefully consider the purchase by addressing their preference for those transparent companies that best demonstrate that they are pursuing sustainability policies and that can demonstrate that they do what they claim. Furthermore, citizen-consumers should also support the recycling, reuse and exchange chain“.

What can brands more engaged in sustainability do?

“Companies should capitalize on decades of public campaigns and proposals aimed at truly reforming the fashion supply chains: first of all they should adhere to the minimum requirements on supply chain transparency, revealing where they produce but should go further, making known the composition of workers in factories, wage levels, the presence of free trade unions. Furthermore, they should undertake binding commitments that guarantee respect for human rights along the entire supply chain, starting with the payment of living wages. The effective fruition of fundamental rights by all the workers employed in the brand supply chains constitutes the only true indicator of social sustainability to measure the degree of Social Responsibility otherwise only stated on paper”.

Fhotos: Cover m0851; Theo Leconte; Nighthawk Shoots; from DW’s documentary; Robbie Noble; Alvaro Serrano.








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