Silvateam Ecotan technology: interview with Antonio Battaglia, BU Leather Director of the Cuneo based company
The Ecotan project, created and promoted by Silvateam, is considered the most innovative and sustainable solution for the tanning industry. With the aim of reducing the environmental impact of the industry, Silvateam has developed a new tanning technology that uses plant extracts and biopolymers instead of traditional leather chemicals. This eco-friendly approach offers several advantages: firstly, it reduces the emission of pollutants into the environment, contributing to the preservation of the ecosystem; and secondly, this process requires less energy, thereby reducing the consumption of non-renewable resources. However, that’s not all. The plant extracts used in the Ecotan tanning and retanning process come from renewable sources, such as tree trunks and barks, which are naturally rich in tannin. This means that not only the negative impacts on the environment are reduced, but natural resources are also enhanced. In addition, thanks to the Ecotan tanning process, high-quality leathers with excellent technical performance are obtained. Therefore tanneries can offer some solutions to their clients to meet the growing demand for environmentally sustainable products. According to a recent study conducted by WEF (2021), 73% of consumers say they are willing to pay more for fashion products made with low environmental impact criteria. The Ecotan project by Silvateam is a concrete example of how innovation and sustainability can grow harmoniously and synergistically.
To begin with, let’s talk about the latest developments related to the carbon footprint of your products.
“Focusing on LCA, Silvateam has made significant progress in the last twelve months. Ten years ago, we were the first chemical products company in the tanning industry to conduct, in collaboration with SPIN360, a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) on some of our plant extracts and synthetic tannins. This analysis enabled us to participate in the environmental performance assessment working group to define Product Category Rules (PCRs) for tanning chemicals. Today, the company has adopted an advanced system for generating LCA data, again with the support of SPIN360, which is based on ISO 14040 standards and has allowed us to calculate the LCA of 40 products so far, representing 90% of our sales. Moreover, we not only focus on the environmental performance of our products, but also strive to support our customers in reducing the impact of the entire leather tanning process. In this regard, we were among the first leather chemical manufacturers to adopt the LCA Simulator, a software developed by SPIN360, which enables Research & Development engineers to analyze the stages of beamhouse, tanning and post-tanning, monitoring real-time of the energy consumption and the impact of all resources used. Thanks to this software, we are able to accurately quantify the environmental impact of different types of leather, taking into account factors such as CO2 emissions, water and energy consumption, as well as the use of natural resources. This accurate approach has been adopted particularly for the leathers in our Ecotan line, whereas previously, we relied mainly on rough estimates of similar products (proxies). The implementation of this advanced tool represents a significant leap forward that we will offer to our clients, enabling them to accurately assess the environmental impact of the products they purchase.”
What type of tool is it?
“It is both a software and a service. In reality, over time, Silvateam has moved more and more from just selling products to offering a complete package of environmental impact technology for the entire supply chain. This is highly valued in both the automotive and fashion industries. The ability to offer a ready-made supply chain is a strength point, in particular for Ecotan. We guarantee, together with our tanning partners and fertilizer company, the sourcing of PEFC-certified raw materials, the production of environmentally sustainable chemicals, the processing and recovery of hides as well as the processing waste used for the production of biofertilizer, through a certified, tested and guaranteed supply chain. So, this is the first part of the work we have done. The second step was the result not only of analysis, but also of investments we have made in recent years. After the first LCA analysis in 2015, we made significant investments in both natural tannin extraction facilities in Italy and Argentina, to make energy production more efficient and increase the production of other products that redistribute the energy impact of the plant differently. In the end, the recalculation showed a reduction in the environmental impact of natural tannin by more than 50%. This result is extremely significant, as natural tannin has a relatively high LCA impact, requiring a higher usage dosage than chromium sulfate to achieve the same tanning effect. This was a weak point, but now the environmental impact is competitive with other technologies. We have achieved a very good result!”
Have you already received feedbacks?
“We have already received very positive feedbacks from many clients who were initially a bit reluctant due to the CO2 impact. With these new data, they are completely supportive and the attitude has changed positively.”
Now new scenarios are opening up: what will be the new frontier?
“In the coming year, there will be more and more projects and the most important aspect is that we will finally have Ecotan technology available in stores. At the moment, many projects are moving beyond the long phase of industrial sampling and prototyping trials, especially in the automotive sector, where the time required is several years.” The number of tanneries using Ecotan technology is steadily increasing. Do you expect the number to increase further by the end of the year?
“We continuously have new partners joining us, and more and more companies believe in the project and embrace it.”
What progress are you making in your product range in response to regulatory developments and challenges related to the presence of bisphenols and end-of-life certification?
“We are putting a lot of effort into adding new products to our range as regulations are undergoing major evolutions. In the coming years, there will be a ban on bisphenols exceeding certain very challenging limits, along with the elimination of glutaraldehyde, which was the most popular alternative to chromium tanning after vegetable tanning. Therefore, we are working hard on the product range to offer bisphenol-free solutions. We are also making significant progress on the technological front. During the upcoming exhibition, we will present a range of bisphenol-free products, and over the next year we will have experimental yet very promising products. I hope that by the next Lineapelle we will be able to introduce them to the market.”
During our last conversation with your Ecotan project director, Alessandra Taccon, we touched on the topic regarding the second life of leather, which is the recovery of products for use as fertilizer. I wonder whether this final step in the chain is currently operational and more active than in the past, or whether there are still obstacles to be addressed.
“In Italy, this phase has always been active, since the beginning, thanks to our operational partner, Fertilizzanti Certaldo. However, both in the automotive industry and among manufacturers of consumer goods, such as sneakers or children’s shoes, there is much attention on this issue. As for the rest of the fashion industry, I reckon that there is more interest in reducing waste along the production chain, as the transformation of leather to finished product generates more than 50% waste. Currently, fashion houses are in a phase of evaluating, measuring and searching for alternatives, closely scrutinizing processes and, if they are viable, considering them as possibilities. However, implementation remains limited at the moment and the fashion world mostly continues to follow a more established tradition. According to a study by MFF (2021), the sustainable fashion market will reach 6.8 billion euros in 2023 with an estimate of 12.5 billion euros by 2030. The attention towards developing sustainable solutions is substantial, and I believe we will soon reach the stage of effective implementation.”
In your opinion, what is the insurmountable limitation for fashion houses to adopt the Ecotan technology?
“It is definitely not an issue related to the leather article portfolio, which is almost complete. The risk fashion houses face is making changes to supply chains that are already tested and reliable. This is a new process and despite the priority always being the assurance of quality and profit margin, sustainability is beginning to gain serious momentum. We are still in a phase of evaluating and creating alternatives, but I believe this process is being approached with great commitment, not just in words. Historically, the automotive industry has been more ready to lead the change toward sustainability than fashion, but we are increasingly confident.”
How much does the automotive sector represent today compared to fashion for your company?
“The automotive sector accounts for about 10% of our sales. This figure is in line with the share market of the tanning industry in the automotive sector, which is generally around 10%. However, with the business growth projects we have planned for the coming years, we expect to significantly increase our presence.”
In the Ecotan project, you stated that you have grown significantly. What has been the growth percentage?
“Ecotan has contributed to our growth, increasing our turnover by +7-8%. This is already a significant impact, considering that they are our initial activities. However, we have much more ambitious targets.”