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.
Ecotan unveils the first shreddable shoe that feeds the planet
Ecotan Shoes is the first shoe that can be easily and completely turned into an organic fertiliser.
Ecotan Shoes is a shoe with a zero-waste innovative design, made with 100% eco-friendly leathers, naturally tanned with tannins: the first truly bio-circular footwear that can be transformed into a fertilizer for organic farming at the end of its life. We talk about it with Alessandra Taccon and Gigi Perinello.
Launched by Silvateam during the recent edition of Lineapelle, Ecotan Shoes was born from the urgency of providing effective solutions to the environmental issues in leather tanning. In the footwear industry, this problem clearly concerns the life cycle of products. Almost 25 billion pairs of shoes are produced annually in the world (according to World Footwear), with sneakers accounting for about 20 billion. 95% of them end up in landfills within a year, and only 5% are recycled. It is all too evident that this consumerist approach cannot be environmentally sustainable in any way. “To reverse the trend, we have to go to the roots of the production process because, as we know, every waste is a design flaw”, says Alessandra Taccon, Ecotan Project Director at Silvateam.
Starting from this awareness, the Italian multinational based in Mondovì was inspired by the bio-circular approach of Ecotan to create ‘Ecotan Shoes’, a sustainable design philosophy that aims to prove that, even today, it is possible to develop products in a ‘zero-waste’ logic.
Ecotan Shoes Sneakers are innovative footwear made with leathers tanned with natural tannins, extracted from PEFC certified wood sources, such chestnut and quebracho, as well as tara pods and gallnuts. Designed in layers and without internal stitches, they are totally free of reinforcements, plastics or other synthetic polymers of fossil origin, thus proving to be a safe and healthy solution for the consumer, and respectful for the environment. Thanks to its entirely organic origin, the Ecotan Sneaker is ‘digestible’ by nature as it is, without being disassembled. It can be completely shredded to return to the soil as an organic fertiliser, which releases the nutrients originally borrowed from the animal’s skin back into the soil. Rich in organic nitrogen and carbon, this fertiliser nourishes the planet, improving soil fertility and allowing plants to absorb and store CO2.
“Sustainability is the fundamental pillar of this innovative project, but shoes must be worn, so they must be comfortable, performing and also beautiful to look at”, underlines Alessandra Taccon. The special Ecotan leathers free from metals, and the revolutionary layered structure make the Sneaker soft, breathable and dry. Thanks to its hygroscopic properties and the presence of tannins, natural polyphenols that inhibit the formation of an environment favourable to bacteria growth, this shoe keeps the foot microbiome healthy, preventing the formation of bad odours and releasing a pleasant smell of tannin. Product durability is another important aspect that is closely related to eco-sustainability. Also in this respect, the leather tanned with natural tannins and the innovative design of Ecotan Shoes make the difference: this Sneaker can last decades, conquering over time a typical lived-in charm. In addition, it can be easily repaired.
Rebels will change the planet
Gigi Perinello defines himself as a rebel by nature. Or, perhaps, it would be better to say for ‘Nature’. He worked for thirty-five years selling raw materials for shoes to all the main Italian and European shoe factories and brands, meeting producers, analysing prototypes and models, giving advice and solving problems. After all these experiences, feeling tired of seeing production move towards low-cost markets and not at all devoted to quality, he decided to found, in 2008, ‘Ragioniamo con i Piedi’(Just think with your feet): “I wanted to show that it is still possible: to produce on a small scale to preserve the right measure of things, to accept the challenge of quality, to shorten the supply chain, to reduce harmful chemicals, to recognise the value of the work and money of those who produce, as well as those who buy”. Today, Perinello lives in a forest on the Euganean Hills, in northern Italy close to Venice, which he planted on his own (1,400 trees): “I live to respect nature, to find solutions that allow shoes to never become waste again”. His values, based on the high quality, durability and repairability of the product, made Silvateam ask for his partnership to carry out the innovative Ecotan Shoes project.
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, Sales Director, 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 an American sustainable footwear consultant 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.