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mai 18, 2017

Brazil’s sustainable leather is a hit

The southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul has produced a new form of leather that causes less pollution. Leather, which is in our shoes, bags, jackets, couches, and car seats, undergoes a commercial process that then releases various polluting agents into the environment. Chrome, for example, is used to tan hides.

Following the global trend towards sustainability, the southern Brazilian leather industry has started adopting a “chrome-free” technology that is able to process hides without using the chemical substance. The technology was developed by Brazilian researcher Luiz Carlos Alves de Oliveira, a professor in the chemistry department at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). 

In addition to winning prizes for his innovative research, Oliveira also attracted the attention of Brazilian leather producers, which helped to fund his project. Not only does Oliveira’s technique reduce the environmental damage of leather production, it also saves producers money by reducing the amount of leather lost in the tanning process.

The tanning process often uses chrome, a heavy metal, in its liquid form to create softness, elasticity, and durability in the hide. However, Oliveira’s patented chrome-free technique was able to take the carcinogenic chemical out of the tanning process by creating a unique catalyzer that attracts the chrome and maintains the protein of the skin intact. This leaves behind clean chrome, which can be used again in the production process, as well as a collagen that is applicable in cosmetics and fertilizers. The researcher has not revealed the substance used, and claims it to be “secret”. 

The first demand for sustainable leather actually came from Swedish importers, who use Brazilian leather for their furniture. The northern Europeans feared that the chemicals would pollute their environment. Other importers, from the U.S., Thailand, and Poland, also expressed similar concerns.

One of the benefits of this innovation in the tanning process is actually a faster decomposition. While the hides processed with chrome usually take about 200 to 250 years to decompose, chrome-free leather actually decomposes within 50 to 60 years. As such, the leather is able to decompose in the soil much faster than hides that were tanned with chrome.

“The concern is with the deposition of this furniture after its use and its environmental impacts. It’s a bet on the future,” said the chemist Mateus Leão Enzveiler, the general manager of Peles Minuano, of the Lindolfo Collor, one of the tanning companies that has taken on this trend in the leather market. 

Now, chrome-free tanned leather accounts for about 5 percent of the company’s total production, which amounts to 5,000 skins per day. According to the Brazilian Leather Industry Center, the Latin American giant ranks among the top five leather producers in the world, with 45 million skins produced per year. Of that massive amount of leather production, 70 percent is exported. 

As of yet, chrome-free leather isn’t very well known in Brazil. Currently, the majority of leather on the market is still tanned with chrome. However the chrome-free technique, because it costs less to produce and is more friendly to the environment, will likely take over the market soon.