ArsTannery Magazine

“Tanneries will return to work in developed countries”

Joan Carles Castell, the new IULTCS president, is optimistic about the future of the leather industry, thanks to scientific and technological advances that will enable it to overcome environmental challenges

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March 2024

“Tanneries will return to work in developed countries”

As of 1 January 2024, Joan Carles Castell is the new president of IULTCS – International Union of Leather Technologists and Chemists Societies, the supranational body that brings together leather chemicals associations from around the world. According to its statute, the objectives of IULTCS are to promote cooperation between member associations, organise congresses to push the industry forward, set up commissions to investigate specific issues and establish international methods for testing and analysis.
Founded 126 years ago, over time the Union of Tanning Technicians has organised 37 international congresses in 20 different countries on all continents; the most recent took place in Chengdu, China, in October 2023. The next one will be in Europe, specifically in Lyon, France, in September 2025.
Newly appointed President Castell generously granted ARS Tannery an all-round interview addressing all the hot topics in the industry.

What are the guidelines of your presidency?
“The historical record shows us the success of the activities that IULTCS has carried out in the 126 years since its foundation. Leather technology has been evolving all those long years with the needs of the industry, continually re-inventing a craft that began in prehistory. IULTCS has played a leading role as a platform for chemists and technicians who specialize in leather manufacturing to exchange their knowledge. The technical commissions created by IULTCS have been generating standards that facilitate international trade.
Inspired by the past but looking to the future, three of my goals for the next years will be:
* A detailed review and update of the Statutes and Internal Regulations to ensure that the governing documents align with new scenarios. These are both opportunities such as forms of communication and digitalization, or threats, with associations that see their resources limited with the relocation of tanneries to other regions.
* Empowering the role of the IULTCS Commissions, both to boost their effectiveness and to explore the establishment of a new commission for sustainability. This commission will address the emerging challenges and work to drive positive change within the industry.
* And, of course, the XXXVIII IULTCS Congress to be hold in September 2025 in Lyon, France”.

What aspects/issues are closest to your heart?
Personally, this year I will celebrate 50 years as a dedicated leather industry professional. I remember in the 80s that as a young sales technician visiting tanneries, my boss at a leather dye company that I worked for advised me to look at the color of the river to see the dyes I had to sell. Today, this is unimaginable. Later, we began to provide simple safety data sheets and some chemical substances began to be restricted. It has been hard work ever since then to keep pushing through changes, but they were needed. Today I look at our industry, the tanneries, the chemical supplies, the machinery and the engineering as an example of modernity, high technology and sustainability. It all combines to give value to a noble, resistant and irreplaceable material created by nature.
I and many colleagues around the world have dedicated our lives to leather because we know how this industry accepts the challenges from environmental issues, the creation of new leather articles, enabling innovations in fashion, and improving tannery performance. We overcome them with constant innovations in technology, safety, and sustainability.
IULTCS represents to me many things that are both close to my heart and that motivate and commit me. In the next two years it will be my task and my honor to see that IULTCS carries on and increases its technical and scientific support for this exemplary industry”.

The leather sector is facing difficult challenges, from economic uncertainty to environmental changes. How do you see the international situation?
“Since I was involved in leather, the tanning industry has been always facing difficult challenges. So, what is new if it has always worked hard and overcame all adversities and uncertainties? I am probably overly optimistic, but the history proves it. Even though, new environments are going to require new efforts, and solutions that worked in the past are not a guarantee for the future. Environmental regulations present difficult challenges for the tanneries, but other challenges come from administrations, brands, the automotive industry, and even consumers influenced by media outlets with questionable interests. These challenges and other ones that we can’t foresee now will have to be faced and addressed head-on. Many shortsighted people can’t see that exchanging leather, a byproduct of the meat industry, for plastic replacements made from petrochemicals is a bad deal for the earth and everything that lives there. It is our task to educate them.
It is clear that new materials can work better than leather for specific purposes. We have known this since the beginning of the textile industry. However, leather is a unique material that can’t be replaced in all areas. Nobody wants woolen boot soles or leather socks. I am sure that the path towards a circular economy, the demand for natural products, the valorization of by-products and durable items fit into a world that already suffers from pollution and global warming”.

How do you see the near future of the tanning industry?
“I believe that in a few years the tanning industry will be restructured. In recent decades it migrated to countries with low production costs. Today, tanning technologies have evolved, especially in the reduction of odors and pollution. The market has become much more demanding, requiring tight control of the price and the quality of raw materials. All these factors, plus the volatility of international transportation prices, may make the industry return to more developed countries. That is my vision”.

What are the technical challenges?
“From a technical point of view, I believe that there are two challenges that the leather industry will face soon, or maybe now: first, while it is important to remind the public that tanneries take advantage of a by-product derived from the meat industry, there is no denying that leather manufacturing also generates a lot of waste. We need to develop a rapid response for improving wastewater loads, valorization of solid waste starting with collagen, and improving the compostability of finished articles so that they can return to nature in the form of fertilizers for agriculture or other applications. The second challenge, and no less important, is the reduction of chemical products used in the manufacture of leather, especially those synthesized from petroleum derivatives. Biotechnology already plays an important role, and many alternatives are now viable with natural products.
At a commercial level, this industry has always been cyclical, going from “boom” to “bust” with depressing regularity. I think these cycles are going to be shorter and will have an impact on the business”.

In your message at the beginning of the year, you announce the need to stimulate international research and the training of young people. How do you plan to do this?
“As I already mentioned, in the next two years we will review and improve the IULTCS commissions, including the IUT (training) and the IUR (research). These commissions will meet soon to establish an action plan. Encouraging young scientists to enter the leather industry is one of the most important functions of the IULTCS, and I will do all that I can to continue that outreach. For years, we have been mentoring and awarding young scientists by initiatives such as the YLGS thanks to the generous collaboration of member and no-member companies. We will always be grateful for this sponsorship. We will continue supporting global collaboration between our experienced members, international research centers, industry partners and emerging talent to ensure as seamless a transfer of knowledge as possible. The training of tannery staff is essential for the proper development of the industry, both in the technical aspect and in the safety and hygiene framework. Collaboration with institutions such as UNIDO, Universities, and Technology Centers will be very important in the coming years and their training programs must be recognized by the IULTCS”.

One of the big problems in the sector is the fake news spread on social media. Can this phenomenon be countered from a scientific point of view?
“As I have said before, leather is an irreplaceable material and positive communication is necessary to make sure the public knows what is leather and what is not leather. Leather comes from a natural and renewable material, made by a complex structure of fibers, fibrils and protein chains that form the collagen. This provides leather with properties incomparable to other materials, such as its physical resistance and breathability, among others. Its beauty, softness and touch obtained in tanneries cannot be compared with any other material. Leather can only come from the skin of animals that provide us with food. Use of the word of “leather” to other materials imply that they have the same properties as leather, and this kind of disinformation needs to be combatted.
Therefore, yes, scientific arguments should be used to counter fake news. As an example, the determination of C14. Some IULTCS members have been working on these tests that demonstrate that many of the materials wrongly named leather are not biobased or derived from renewable resources but from petrochemistry.
We also can measure and point out the environmental impact on landfills if hides and skins were not processed in the tanneries and make the case that leather is a natural storage unit for biogenetic carbon.
But in the end, I must insist that the best strategy to counter fakes is to positively promote leather and leather products. IULTCS and its members should always be available to support the industry”.

What role can IULTCS play in promoting responsible practices along the leather value chain?
“In fact, this is the whole aim of the IULTCS, because scientific innovations and knowledge exchanges are unthinkable if they do not entail, at the same time, substantial improvements in responsible practices. Our congresses and regional and national conventions include more than just tanneries and chemical or machinery suppliers. Every link of the leather value chain is invited to participate actively in such events. Many members of the associations in the IULTCS participate or are members of many organizations like LGW, LN, SLF”.

The next IULTCS Congress will be held in Lyon (France) in September 2025. Has the main theme/title already been decided?
“First, I would like to recognize the great success and organization of the last 2023 XXXVII IULTCS Congress in Chengdu. The organizing committee has started to work on the preparation of this important even and they will shortly communicate what the congress will focus on. Lyon is a magnificent place to hold the 2025 XXXVIII IULTCS Congress and I would like to invite the readers to collaborate and participate. With the involvement of the AFICTIC and the CTC I have no doubt of a new success for the IULTCS”.

Joan Carles Castell, new president of IULTCS
Joan Carles Castell at the last International Congress in Chengdu, China

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