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Understanding Leather Certifications: LWG vs. Italian Vegetable-Tanned Leather

There is a lot of talk these days about the impacts of leather on the environment and problems with the larger cattle industry. While we won’t be getting into the weeds on these particular subjects we will be talking about the certifications within the leather industry, including this for vegetable-tanned leather. There are two prominent organizations providing certifications in the leather industry; The Leather Working Group (LWG) and the Consortium of Genuine Italian Vegetable-Tanned Leather Tanners. Each serves a unique purpose and caters to different aspects of leather production and philosophy. Here, we’ll break down these certifications to help you understand their focuses, goals, and whom they benefit most.

We are not affiliated with either of these groups, if you would like to know about about there standards and regulations please visit their respective websites below:

The Leather Working Group (LWG)

Logo for the Leather Working Group
Photo Credit: The Leather Working Group

What is the LWG?

The Leather Working Group is an organization that has developed a robust certification process focusing on promoting sustainable and environmentally responsible practices across the leather manufacturing industry. It’s a widely recognized standard that assesses the environmental compliance and performance of tanneries around the world.

Goals and Global Impact

The primary aim of the LWG is to ensure that leather production, including vegetable-tanned leather, is environmentally sound. This includes managing how tanneries use energy, handle waste, and treat water, which are crucial for reducing the environmental footprint of leather manufacturing. By setting a high standard, LWG pushes the industry towards more sustainable practices globally, influencing a vast array of brands and suppliers.

Broad Industry Relevance

LWG is relevant to a wide spectrum of stakeholders. Whether they are a big brand looking to ensure the supply chain is environmentally friendly, or a consumer who cares about the ecological impact of the products they purchase, LWG certification provides a clear indication of environmental responsibility.

Key Areas of Assessment

  1. Environmental Management Systems: LWG evaluates how tanneries manage their environmental impact. This includes the implementation of proper environmental management systems, emergency response strategies, energy use, water consumption, and waste management.

  2. Chemical Management: Proper management of chemicals used in the tanning process is critical. LWG checks for the safe storage, handling, and use of chemicals, aiming to minimize the risk of spills and emissions. The certification also encourages the reduction of harmful substances and promotes the use of safer alternatives.

  3. Water Usage: Water management is a crucial aspect of the LWG audit. Tanneries are assessed on their water use efficiency, including the recycling and treatment of wastewater. The goal is to reduce the quantity of water used per hide and ensure that effluent water is treated to meet or exceed local and international standards before being discharged.

  4. Energy Consumption: Energy efficiency measures are evaluated to ensure that tanneries are minimizing their carbon footprint. This includes the use of renewable energy sources where possible and the implementation of strategies to reduce overall energy consumption.

  5. Waste Management: LWG promotes effective waste management practices. This involves the reduction, reuse, and recycling of waste materials generated during the leather tanning process. Proper disposal methods for hazardous and non-hazardous waste are also a critical part of the certification criteria.

  6. Traceability: The certification assesses the ability of tanneries to trace the origins of their raw materials. Ensuring traceability is crucial for verifying that the hides are sourced responsibly and sustainably.

Levels of Certification

LWG offers different levels of certification to tanneries based on their performance in the audit:

  • Gold: This is awarded to tanneries that meet the highest standards of environmental compliance.

  • Silver: For tanneries that meet the required standards but have minor areas for improvement.

  • Bronze: This level is given to tanneries that meet the minimum requirements but need to make significant improvements to move up.

Benefits of LWG Certification

  1. Enhanced Reputation: Tanneries that achieve LWG certification can benefit from an enhanced reputation within the industry. This certification is recognized globally and is often sought after by leading brands and manufacturers seeking responsible partners.

  2. Market Access: Many global brands require their suppliers to have LWG certification. Therefore, certified tanneries may find it easier to access new markets and customers who prioritize environmental sustainability.

  3. Operational Efficiency: The process of preparing for and maintaining LWG certification often leads to more efficient operations. This can result in cost savings, particularly through reduced energy and water usage, and better waste management practices.

  4. Environmental Impact: Ultimately, the most significant benefit is the reduction of the environmental impact associated with leather production. This aligns with global efforts to combat climate change and environmental degradation.

The Consortium of Genuine Italian Vegetable-Tanned Leather Tanners

Label for the Consorzio Vera Pelle Italiana
Photo Credit: Consorzio Vera Pelle Italiana

The Essence of Vegetable-Tanned Leather

This consortium is not just about a style of leather production but about a tradition steeped in history specific to vegetable-tanned leather. Located in Tuscany, this certification ensures that the leather is tanned using natural tannins found in vegetable matter, such as tree bark and other plant materials, without any synthetic substances.

Preservation of Craftsmanship

The certification is geographically specific and devoted to protecting the artisanal methods that have been passed down through generations in Tuscany. It's about maintaining the integrity and authenticity of the vegetable-tanning process, which not only offers a unique aesthetic and durability but also carries a piece of Italian heritage.

Targeting a Niche Market

The Consortium’s certification appeals particularly to those who value craftsmanship and the natural beauty of leather. It targets consumers and brands that appreciate the art of vegetable-tanned leather making and the deep-rooted tradition that comes with Tuscan leather.

Criteria for Certification

  1. Natural Tanning Methods: The primary criterion is the exclusive use of natural tannins in the tanning process, a hallmark of traditional vegetable-tanned leather. These tannins are typically extracted from tree bark, leaves, and fruits, and no synthetic agents are allowed. This traditional method is slower than modern chemical tanning, but it's celebrated for its low environmental impact and the unique quality it imparts to the leather.

  2. Geographical Boundaries: To be certified, the leather must be tanned in Tuscany. This geographical specification ensures the preservation of regional artisanal skills and techniques, which are considered an integral part of the local cultural identity.

  3. Artisanal Production: The certification emphasizes small-scale production that honors traditional craftsmanship. Each piece of leather is often handled and inspected manually, ensuring high quality and attention to detail.

  4. Traceability and Transparency: Full traceability of the leather, from the source of the raw hides to the end product, is required. This transparency ensures that all materials meet the consortium’s standards and allows consumers to feel confident about the authenticity and ethical sourcing of their purchases.

Levels and Monitoring

The Consortium does not necessarily have different "levels" of certification like LWG, but maintains a strict compliance regime. Regular audits and checks are conducted to ensure that all certified tanneries adhere to the defined practices.

Benefits of the Consortium’s Certification

  1. Authenticity and Quality Assurance: Products crafted from leather certified by the Consortium are guaranteed to be of high quality and authenticity. This assurance is highly valued by customers who seek premium, durable leather goods.

  2. Cultural Preservation: The certification helps preserve an important cultural heritage, maintaining traditional skills and methods that might otherwise be lost to industrialization and modernization.

  3. Environmental Consideration: By using natural tannins and traditional methods, the environmental impact is significantly reduced, appealing to eco-conscious consumers and businesses.

  4. Market Differentiation: The certification provides a distinct market advantage, distinguishing products in a crowded market as genuinely artisanal and sustainably produced. It appeals particularly to niche markets that prioritize unique, handcrafted goods with a clear provenance.

Comparing the Certifications: Key Differences and Similarities

Environmental Focus vs. Artisanal Quality

While both certifications deal with environmental concerns, LWG focuses more broadly on reducing the environmental impact across all stages of leather production globally. In contrast, the Consortium emphasizes using natural materials and traditional methods that are inherently less harmful than modern chemical processes.

Global Standards vs. Regional Traditions

LWG’s certification has a global application, designed to be relevant across various countries and cultures. The Consortium, however, is very much about a specific locale—Tuscany. This makes its certification especially significant for those looking to buy leather that is not just made traditionally but also carries a story and a heritage.

Broader Industry Impact vs. Cultural Preservation

The impact of LWG is seen industry-wide, pushing for environmental improvements in leather production around the world. The Consortium’s impact is more cultural, aiming to preserve a way of life and an art form that defines a part of Italy.

Final Thoughts

Both the Leather Working Group and the Consortium of Genuine Italian Vegetable-Tanned Leather Tanners play crucial roles in their respective areas. By choosing products that are certified by these bodies, consumers and businesses can support sustainable practices and preserve traditional craftsmanship, depending on their personal or brand values. 

Understanding these certifications helps in making informed choices that align with one's ethical and aesthetic preferences in the world of luxury vegetable-tanned leather goods.

The leather we use at Norfolk all comes from tanneries that are certified by either of these organizations. We will soon be indicating our certified products with the image below. That way you know can feel confident that the leather used has been produced in a facility that meets either of these high standards.

Norfolk Certified Leather Symbol
Norfolk Certified Leather Symbol

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