Smart Key: Environmental management—catalyzing the leather industry’s shift to sustainability

In recent years, leather-good consumers have become increasingly concerned about the sustainability and transparency of supplies and production. Their demands are being addressed by legislation aimed at curbing environmental burdens stemming from pollution, the inefficient use of resources and improper waste management, all of which lead to climate change, deteriorated ecosystems and a loss of biodiversity.

Given this, how is environmental management proving to be the most promising driver for the leather industry?

An in-depth mission

Environmental management systems aim to set a framework to address environmental issues as well as socio-economic needs. The obligations are imposed on all the processing stages and are designed to:

  • Eliminate or reduce environmental impacts, thus strengthening environmental performance
  • Reinforce adherence to compliance obligations
  • Control a product’s design, manufacture and distribution, and influence its uses, from an overall life-cycle perspective to avoid unintentional environmental impacts being transferred from one stage to the next
  • Ensure financial and operational balance through the implementation of alternatives that strengthen the company’s market position through its virtuous initiatives
  • Support the communication of environmental data

Why is this a must in terms of leather’s sustainable transition?

While fabric development can rely on a diversity of resources, leather depends on animal hides. If certain practices such as cattle breeding as part of a regenerative agriculture, or managed grazing, may benefit the soil, solutions intended to minimize the sector’s impacts remain focused on the steps involved in transformation the skin into leather.

Leather processes such as river working, tanning, re-tanning and finishing require an amount of water, chemical substances and energy that can be optimally controlled to reach the desired environmental goals.

Environmental management adapted to the processing stages will result in the optimization of resources (hides, chemicals, water, energy), the reduction and efficient management of emissions generated during the production process (whether in gas, solid or liquid form), and the quality and longevity of the resulting product.

Read also: Smart Key: New generation tanning – towards a leather industry with a reduced chemical impact?

The keys

The aim of an environmental management system is to improve the quality of processes and products by reducing deficiencies and improving efficiency, by solving problems and by anticipating risks. It is achieved through a 4-step continuous improvement cycle process, summarized as PDCA, or “Plan-Do-Check-Act”.

  • Plan, by establishing the objectives and processes to achieve them
  • Carry out, by implementing the defined frameworks
  • Verify, by ensuring the monitoring of the actions implemented
  • Act, by taking the necessary corrective actions based on the previous diagnosis

Certifications and audits

ISO 14001 is a foundation, and several audits and certifications are used as references in the leather industry to attest to the implementation of environmental management systems, such as EMAS (Eco Management Audit Scheme), LWG (Leather Working Group), CSCB (Brazilian Leather Certification for Sustainability), Ecopelle issued by ICEC (Italian Institute of Quality Certification for the Leather Sector), or Oekotex Step (Sustainable Textile and Leather Production).

All agree on the following indicators:

  • Chemicals management – Procedures, tests, and monitoring of regulated chemicals and heavy metals, up to and including the proactive formalization of an exclusion list
  • Energy consumption – Evaluation of energy per unit of production and use of renewable energy
  • Water use – Control of water consumption
  • Effluent treatment – Wastewater treatment processes
  • Air and noise emissions – Inventory of emissions and measures to limit or reduce them
  • Solid waste management – Waste management systems, establishment of a hazardous waste register and monitoring of disposal
  • Occupational health and safety – Analysis of the risks associated with the chemicals used, protective measures and prevention
  • Operations management – Monitoring of the manufacturing processes and best practices implemented

LWG, CSCB and ICEC also ensure the origin of the raw hides.

While the industry has tackled the transformation of its tanning processes head on, with innovations in terms of machines, processes and tanning agents, certain challenges remain, such as the optimization of upstream river work. Alternative solutions to the salting of hides need to be developed. Saline residues are difficult to eliminate in conventional effluent treatment systems, and their impact is significant as excess salinity can upset the biological balance of ecosystems.


  • United Nations Industrial Development Organization, The framework for sustainable leather manufacture, 2019
  • ISO 14001:2015 – Environmental management systems – Requirements and guidance
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