AICC The tanning sector at the forefront during the Covid-19 emergency


An interview with Mariano Roberto Mecenero, president of the Italian Association of Leather Chemists: “After a period of forced suspension of production, slaughterhouse asked some of our companies to pick up hides so as to avoid the interruption of the food supply chain.”

Mariano Roberto Mecenero
Mariano Roberto Mecenero, president of AICC

“In such a dramatic, complicated period, due to Coronavirus outbreak, the tanning sector has stood at the forefront, a strategic example of circular economy since the ancient times that, in the last few months, has been paying a key role in ensuring the food supply chain continuity,” stated Mariano Roberto Mecenero, appointed in February 2019 as President of the Italian Association of Leather Chemists (AICC), a pivotal trade association (he was part of its Board of directors as well, since 2012) that brings together almost 600 registered members, ready to face a difficult recovery as future prospects are still uncertain. Born in 1952 in Gallio (Vicenza province) and resident in Chiampo, graduated in chemistry at Ferrara University, Mecenero has been working in the tanning industry since 1976 and he is currently a business partner at Conceria Dani SpA, renowned enterprise headquartered in Arzignano, – one of the world’s leading districts -, where he deals with research projects and acts as the chemicals purchasing manager as well as responsible for materials and contracts management. In early April, when Covid-19 was spreading globally, President Mecenero wrote a letter to the members of the association, uploaded on the homepage of AICC’s website: “I believe that each one of us feared that, sooner or later, even Italy and Europe could be involved in some kind of war: military or financial, hit by atomic bombs or affected by an economic crisis arranged by enemy strategies. We had no inkling whatsoever that a simple virus could bring half of the world to its knees, while hoping that the other half would not have to face the same crisis later on. We have seen our share of issues, yet this is a brand-new experience: forced to stay at home, to protect ourselves from everyone, even from our beloved ones’ breath. An amazing example came, first and foremost, from doctors and nurses, but also from people who worked and sacrificed themselves in different situations by providing, often heroically, a service, thus inspiring us to give our best in our specific sectors, so as to contribute to Italy’s recovery from this dramatic situation.”

During the most critical phase of the Covid-19 outbreak, slaughterhouses turned for help to the tanneries based in the Chiampo Valley, asking them to collect hides in order to process raw materials and avoid their putrefaction. Can we define this as a great example of professionalism? I think so. The tanning sector complied with the Government regulations concerning production standstill. Basically, on March 24th, our companies suspended their activities for a few weeks. Then, the slaughterhouses working with us turned to tanneries, pointing out that the refrigerating rooms, where they stored for a short period of time hides recently butchered, were full. In order to avoid issues for the food supply chain as well as sanitary problems inside their facilities, they enlisted tanners’ help to collect said materials. We forwarded this urgent request to the local Prefect: in this way, we managed to prevent leathers’ putrefaction. Therefore, it was necessary to start again tanning production so as not to interrupt the food supply chain and not to result in supplying issues that would have affected slaughterhouses, supermarkets, and stores. In other words, only thanks to the tanneries’ virtuous cycle, steaks and meat were always available for daily consumption.

Therefore, during this health emergency, the tanning sector has played a key role… What happened is there for all to see. More specifically, some light was shed on a peculiar factor, well-known to industry professionals: food chain’s scraps, that might be otherwise left to rot, thus resulting in serious sanitary issues, are recycled by tanneries, as they are able to turn them into a topquality material used for the production of footwear, bags, belts, furnishing items, cars and planes interiors, bikes’ seats and saddles, all first-rate articles. Tanneries’ activities also concern the tanning by-products, through which it is possible to develop fertilizers, foliar fertilizers, plant biostimulants as well as many other useful products for agriculture and forage areas. I do not think that there is another, equally strategic example of smart circular economy and of agro-industrial recycling. Even if upgraded recently, this very process has been carried out for millennia: even primitive men used animal hides to cover themselves, to manufacture shoes or their tents.” 

How did you face Covid-19 emergency at Conceria Dani, in Arzignano? In a respectful and constructive way, fully aware of the difficulties. The firm features 650 employees and there has been not a single contagion case, because we have immediately implemented strict control measures. The activities resumed but with a limited number of workers, fifteen or so, for the aforementioned reasons; currently, we are gradually bringing back the other colleagues as well. Now that the outbreak peak is seemingly behind us, we can say that the local territory was affected only slightly: at the end of April, the Arzignano area registered only a couple of deaths. Luckily enough, we did not face the same ordeal as other Italian provinces. 

Right now, special attention is paid to safety protocols for enterprises, regulations to be complied with in the future as well… In my opinion, there will be no big issues for tanning and chemical companies, when it comes to both the use of protection devices and to mandatory distancing, as we have been carrying out these procedures in place for quite some time. I refer, for example, to the tools required to protect face and hands: overalls, gloves and face masks are already part of the gear employment by many tanning workers. Now, we also have body temperature measurement, before going in, and work management in compliance with the proper distances. 

According to you, what are the prospects for the tanning and chemical sectors in the upcoming future? Economists believe that this crisis will strongly affect us in the years to come: I think we all agree on this. The greatest concerns lie in the virus development in Italy and all over the world: right now, we have to no way of knowing what lies in store starting from the second half of the year. Several of our tanning enterprises are tightly tied to the fashion, automotive and furnishing industries; therefore, we need to monitor these sectors’ recovery on a global scale. Everything will come down to market upswing as well as to the firms’ reaction speed, the latter a feature that, in recent years, has helped Italian tanneries pursue products’ diversification and keep their quality standards high. 

Are you confident in the leather sector’s recovery? I am, by nature, an optimistic person, and I want to keep this attitude even in such a critical period. Obviously, the situation has grown more complicated due not only to dynamics not entirely depending on the market, but also to the companies’ financial capacity and to the fact that, in other countries, unlike what happened in Italy, the tanning sector did not stop. It is a difficult situation, but, I believe, a key role will be played by the bond between a company and its most loyal customers, so as to find the best solution to get back on track. Plenty of mid- to small-sized enterprises are family-run businesses, we are accustomed to work in factories, we are not afraid of skipping the next summer holidays or of doing some overtime. We are ready to handle challenges and to take back what Coronavirus took away from us. 

In view of the health emergency, will there be changes in the programme presented after your appointment as President of the Italian Association of Leather Chemists? We have to find a way to organize our future meetings, courses, seminars and conferences, in compliance with the new regulations. The three main guidelines are still in place. First of all, we will strive to enhance the dialogue between the various Italian districts to foster collaboration. Secondly, in continuity with the past, we will focus on our associates’ training and education, thus promoting the growth of tanning culture and supporting technicians by scheduling events and refresh courses concerning the most topical issues. Last but not least, we aim at strengthening the ties with other associations belonging to the same supply chain, including UNIC, Assomac, Unpac and Federchimica, the Experimental Station for the Leather Industry (SSIP), as well as with universities and schools. 

In concrete terms, how do you plan to foster, under the aegis of made in Italy the bond between the districts based in Arzignano, Santa Croce sull’Arno e Solofra? In addition to the aforementioned ones, I would like to add the cluster based in Lombardy and Piedmont, maybe less famous that the others, yet featuring significant peculiarities. The main goal is to team up. It may seem a paradox, but, in the last few months marked by travel bans due to Covid-19 outbreak, our bond has grown stronger: in the past, meetings took physically place in each single district, while, during the health emergency, thanks to the new technologies such as Skype and video conferences, we had the chance to interact with the rest of the country. Maybe, given the pandemic, some local conferences can be now held on online platforms that could involve Italy as a whole: it may be a solution to start again, stronger and more cohesive. The National Board of Directors is dealing with this and with many other matters. 

The future of the tanning industry is tied to environmental safeguard: what kind of initiatives will AICC, the association that embodies the utmost expertise and innovation in the leather chemistry field, implement? It is crystal clear that sustainability is the key trend, not only in terms of leather quality, but also when it comes to workplaces and the territory in which we live: over the last decades, the tanning district has definitely improved with regard to the health and safety standards of the Italian districts. Tanning technicians will keep working and improving production processes, in order to make them more and more eco-friendly, with the support of the colleagues specialized in the development of leather chemicals. 

What is the ultimate goal? To keep improving research- and innovation-wise, to guarantee sustainable tanning processes, so much so that even by-products can be enhanced and recycled, in compliance with a circular economy policy. To support high-end fashion and luxury brands, it is our duty to provide low-impact hides, treated with increasingly safer chemicals. The situation has been improving steadily in recent decades, but there is still a lot of work ahead of us. If I may crack a joke, I feel like we can swear it on our…skin.