Speaking of sustainable fashion means referring to both ecological and social aspects: responsible management of raw materials but also a fair treatment for workers and respect for consumers.

The fashion industry is among the most polluting ones in the world after oil and synthetic chemistry.*

It is therefore necessary to find sustainable solutions that convince the market to address this topics in order to meet both the ever-growing demand for price reduction and the growing interest of consumers towards these issues. In particular, composition, production processes, origin of materials, are fundamental aspects that combine to define the environmental and social impact of a product.

The word “sustainability” immediately brings to mind the concept of innovation: but is innovation always synonymous with sustainability? The research is moving very fast, perhaps even too fast. Let’s take a break and think about it.

Natural Raw Materials: always sustainable?

Let’s take a step back: the raw materials for the fashion industry can be divided into three main categories, such as natural fibers, artificial fibers and synthetic fibers.

  • Natural fibers are derived from natural sources, either plants or animals, through mechanical processes that do not alter their structure: for example, cotton, hemp, wool or even leather.
  • Artificial fibers are derived from natural sources but through chemical processes: for example, viscose (which comes from wood pulp, straw or cotton) or acetate (which comes from cellulose and acetic acid). These names make us think of natural raw materials but at the end of the industrial process, what is there really left of “nature”? Furthermore, what environmental impact do these processes have in terms of energy and water consumption?
  • Synthetic fibers derive from the direct transformation of chemical substances generally involved in the petrochemical industry, for example nylon or fleece. We often read that the PET plastic recycled material can be used to produce fleece sweatshirts, gloves, scarves or blankets, or even super-resistant padding for winter jackets. Excellent, but what are the costs and environmental impact of these processes?

Let’s make a further consideration: are natural fibers always sustainable? No. We tend, in fact, to think that artificial and synthetic fibers are the most polluting, and this is sometimes true, since synthetic production processes involve a great expenditure of energy or the use of chemical substances that cause waste disposal issues.

Sometimes, however, even natural materials can be produced in ways that are not entirely green. This is why certifications have been created to trace the raw materials, such as cotton or wool, in order to guarantee a low environmental impact supply chain. Because the risk is real, even for natural materials.

An example? In some cases, non-certified cotton is grown with the aid of pesticides or herbicides, dangerous for the environment and public health.

As regards artificial materials, let’s analyze the so-called “eco-leather”, a very fashionable material from the ‘90s that was presented as the “ecological” alternative to real leather as it was not a by-product of the animal production industry. But was eco-leather to be considered ecological, since it was a synthetic material derived from oil?

This has given rise to a long debate in the EU, that has lasted many years and is still ongoing, with important legal disputes. Today these synthetic materials bear the label “imitation leather” on the label, while the term “eco-leather” has changed its meaning and is now a term that stands for leathers obtained from sustainable raw materials undergoing natural and ecological tanning processes that meet minimum requirements of the product certification for low environmental impact leathers (“ecoleathers” or “ecological leathers”) based on the Italian UNI 11427 standards. Nothing to share with all those synthetic and plastic materials produced with chemical processes, that in the end are not sustainable at all.

Vegetable tanned leather: natural, sustainable and trendy

However, there is a natural raw material that is processed within a virtuous context of environmental and social sustainability. It is vegetable tanned leather with tannin. An ancient artisan tradition, a leather making method that guarantees the sustainability of raw materials and the experience gained throughout centuries of workmanship, a process that cares also about the workers it involves.

A method that in the Italian provinces of Pisa and Florence is still carried on by local tanneries with the same passion. In these areas, leather used to produce soles is commercialized with the trademark “Cuoio di Toscana” while vegetable tanned leather bears the trademark “Vegetable Tanned Leather of Tuscany”.

Vegetable tanned leather is really a sustainable material. Let’s see why:

  • The hides are a waste from the food industry: if not tanned, they would become a waste to be disposed of, so they can be reused fueling a circular economy.
  • Tannin is a 100% natural substance; vegetable tanned leather is therefore free of chemical substances and for this reason it is does not harm allergic subjects.
  • The tannin used for leather tanning is extracted according to a sustainable process that optimizes resources and energy consumption.
  • Vegetable tanned leather acquires numerous properties, including resistance and breathability, which makes it perfect for making long-lasting accessories such as jackets, shoes, belts, etc.
  • Sustainability is a factor which belongs to the entire chain of tannin, from sourcing to its extraction and the vegetable tanning process.
  • The raw materials are mainly wood and other vegetable sources, as pods or galls. Their supply respects the environment, since it must be compliant with the strict regulations and the monitoring of the national authorities in order to safeguard forest heritage and, at the same time, prevent any exploitation and deforestation for intensive agriculture. The most widely used plant sources for industrial scale tannin extraction are Chestnut wood, Quebracho wood and Tara pods.
  • Furthermore, the companies that extract tannins are located nearby the forests and this minimizes the environmental impact of the supply process. A perfect example is in Argentina, where the economic management of the Quebracho forests caused a revitalization of local micro-economies, preventing the abandonment of rural areas and ensuring the livelihoods of local populations. The same thing happened in Italy, where the extraction of chestnut tannins allowed to preserve the local woods, especially in the valleys between Piedmont and Liguria, enhancing the economy of the mountain villages.

The tannin extraction process is a real infusion, without the addition of any chemical additive. It only requires hot water: the vegetable source (wood) is left to macerate in big autoclaves while it naturally releases the tannin. The so obtained liquid undergoes a drying process that transforms it into a colored powder, more suitable for storage and transportation.

The water vapor deriving from the process is reused for new extraction processes. The exhausted wood can either be sent to a biomass plant to produce new energy or transformed into completely natural pellets for heating.

A conscious purchase always starts with the question “How was it made?” Vegetable tanning and the use of tannin can really provide a sustainable answer to this question. And perhaps it will be your next reason to buy a pair of shoes or sandals in vegetable tanned leather with tannin.

*Sources:

Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2018, Global Fashion Agenda – downloadable here

Environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry 2019 (UE Parliament) – downloadable here

Making Climate Change Fashionable – The Garment Industry Takes On Global Warming- James Conca, Forbes, December 3rd 2015.

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