Ecotan is an innovative leather tanning technology developed by Silvateam, world leader in the production of natural tannins, in order to produce a new class of leather that has excellent performance standards, is safe for all and is a truly bio-circular material.
Tanned with a combination of natural and synthetic tannins, as well as other harmless biopolymers, Ecotan leathers are free of hazardous substances such as chrome and glutaraldehyde, creating a safe, healthy and comfortable environment for the end user. At the end of their useful life, both leather articles and cuttings can be recycled into fertilisers suitable for organic farming, returning to the earth as useful nutrients instead of ending up in landfills.
Over 20 of the top tanneries in the world have joined the Ecotan project and are ready to supply bio-circular leathers from raw materials of different origins, in a wide range of finishes and colours.
This new frontier in sustainable leather solutions comes as a result of a decade of continuous innovation conducted at Silvateam Research & Development centers in partnership with several universities, research institutes, tanneries and recycling companies.
Why Ecotan was born
Ecotan is great step forward towards an even more sustainable tanning process, valid for the entire supply chain. Developed by Silvateam, this innovative technology allows for the production of metal-free and glutaraldehyde-free leathers which can be recycled at the end of their life-cycle.
We asked Antonio Battaglia, director of Silvateam’s Leather Business Unit, and Eric Poles, project development and sales manager, to help us better understand the features of the Ecotan tanning system and how this project can offer innovative solutions for the entire sector:
“Being specialised in the production of plant extracts, Silvateam has always focused on sustainable products – states Battaglia. Aware of the great demand for recyclable materials coming from the market and fashion brands, we developed an innovative tanning technology to allow both tanners and brands to answer the call”.
What bio-circularity means
The concept of bio-circularity is worth investigating:
“We are talking about BIO because the tanning process is based on products of natural origin and CIRCULAR because both leather scraps and – once the necessary supply chain has been created – finished articles can be recycled into a fertiliser. This can be done thanks to an acidic hydrolysis process by our partner Fertilizzanti Certaldo”.
What pushed you in this direction?
“The collaboration with American sustainable footwear consultant Pete Lankford, was crucial since he encouraged us to expand leather’s circularity story by exploring the pathway of finding a new use for leather articles. Over the years, Silvateam has done a lot of research on the sustainability of tanning products, measuring the countless advantages offered by leathers tanned with natural tannins. Recently, our researchers have reached a true technological breakthrough, obtaining high quality, performing leather that can transform a waste material into a resource for our planet. In this way, leather can join a perfect circular economy model by returning to the earth as a useful nutrient”.
Partners - Production - Costs - Destinations
The fact that this technology can be used to tan leathers of various types and origins is another fundamental advantage of Ecotan.
To demonstrate this, Silvateam has involved several tanneries from all over the world in the project (such as Volpi, Valdarno, Vesta, Polaris and La Scarpa in Italy, Haas 1842, Hiriar and Mégisserie Richard in France, the Brazilian giant JBS, Panamericana del Bajío and Wyny in Mexico, Sepiciler in Turkey, amongst others).
Tanneries completely different from each other in terms of size, processing and raw material type.
“Each partner managed to obtain high quality bio-circular leathers and are now ready to offer Ecotan leather articles to the market”, they explain.
the complete solution for recyclable leathers
As the world leader in the production of natural tannins, it comes to no surprise that Silvateam chose to base its Ecotan leather formulations on a combination of natural tannins and harmless man-made additives. “With this project – states Leather BU Director Antonio Battaglia – we wanted to create a new class of bio-circular leathers that are safe for both us and the earth”. Part of this vision meant ensuring that Ecotan leathers are both metal-free and glutaraldehyde-free, as well as avoiding any substance listed in the ZDHC Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL).
But the sustainability of Ecotan leathers is not simply a matter of products used for tanning: for Silvateam, a truly ‘green’ approach to leather must start from the sustainable sourcing of raw materials and go all the way to the end of the leather article’s useful life. For this reason, the Ecotan project follows leather throughout its entire journey, from ‘birth’ to ‘life’ and ‘next life’.
Silvateam’s nature-based approach starts from the main product used during tanning: natural tannins. Sourced from chestnut and quebracho wood, tara pods and gall-nuts, these polyphenolic substances are extracted using only hot water and nothing else. Furthermore, the exhausted wood from the production process is used as biomass for power plants or transformed into 100% natural pellets that are free from additives, bleaching or dyeing agents.
Silvateam sources 80% of the wood needed for its production of chestnut tannins from an area of 70km surrounding its main production facility in Piedmont, Italy; all while keeping harvest rates below 10% of the forest’s regenerative capacity.
In order to demonstrate its sustainable sourcing methods, the company has recently been acknowledged by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) for its production of chestnut and quebracho tannin, a first in the industry. “The wellbeing of the forests which supply us with this precious resource is synonymous to the survival of our company,” says Battaglia. “This has been our philosophy from the beginning and it has allowed us to continue operating sustainably in the same areas for over 165 years.”
The company hopes that this natural approach will help to further distinguish leather, a by-product of the food industry, from its synthetic counterparts, which often draw upon dubious claims of natural origin to present themselves to the consumer as better alternatives to real leather.
Founded in 1854 near Cuneo, in Piedmont, the Silvateam company is the leading Italian producer of tanning chemicals and one of the top ten worldwide. In addition to the tanning industry, which absorbs about 50% of its production made in its own factories in Italy, Argentina and Peru, its tannins and plant extracts are used in the food sector, in the wine-making industry and in animal nutrition.