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How the sea buckthorn plant is helping make tanning more sustainable

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In the leather industry, there are many opportunities to increase the sustainability of the processes. One example is the use of the sea buckthorn plant as a tanning agent. The company Smit & Zoon already uses sea buckthorn. It is a sustainable, plant-based alternative to using chrome to tan leather. Smit & Zoon is ambitious. The company is tackling social and ecological problems in the entire supply chain.

Smit & Zoon is a family business from Weesp. It specialises in sustainable chemical solutions for the leather industry. The company makes chemicals to turn hides into leather. This process is called tanning. “Leather is already a very sustainable product,” says Venture Manager Pim Wilgenburg. “The hides are a by-product of the food industry. We want to increase the sustainability of the supply chain around this industry.”

Chrome is used to tan 80 to 85% of all leather. If you do it wrong, it can cause pollution and harm people and the environment. Now, we have found a sustainable alternative: the sea buckthorn plant.

The discovery of a new prototype tanning agent

The research company SN Botanicals is an expert in bio-based products. It discovered that it could use a substance in the leaves of the sea buckthorn plant as the basis for a new tanning agent. That discovery was the start of DesertSpring. DesertSpring is a cooperation project involving innovative companies, including SN Botanicals, Smit & Zoon and Enviu. Based on the sea buckthorn extract, DesertSpring developed a prototype tanning agent. This new agent is more environmentally friendly than chrome.

Mr Wilgenburg from Smit & Zoon calls the sea buckthorn an interesting plant. “It is a large shrub that does not need much water, so it grows well in very poor soil. It grows well in dunes or on land that would otherwise turn into a desert.” Wilgenburg believes that this plant can also help tackle social and ecological problems in the supply chain. Laura Willemen, Venture Builder at Enviu, explains, “Cooperation is crucial. Through DesertSpring, we promote sea buckthorn farms in remote areas of China where desertification is a problem. Growing sea buckthorn creates jobs locally. It also slows down desertification. We are working with local partners to make sure the quality and terms of employment are managed properly.”

Getting answers to important questions

The Fund for Responsible Business (FVO) helped Smit & Zoon with a feasibility study. With this, Smit & Zoon was able to show that the tanning agent works and has real potential. Wilgenburg adds, “We already know there is a demand for sustainable tanning agents. The question is, will scaling up affect the quality? Can we make sure the whole chain benefits from this? And is it financially realistic? These are the questions we are working on now.”

To answer these questions, Smit & Zoon is working with Bhartiya's research lab. Bhartiya is India’s largest exporter of leather clothing. It supplies international brands like Calvin Klein and Levi’s. After 3 years of research, Smit & Zoon is now ready to test whether the sustainable tanning agent works on an industrial scale.

Wilgenburg also states that the FVO subsidy had a positive side effect. It made the company think even more about what it wants to achieve. “You need to know every aspect of your business. At Smit & Zoon, we are trying to change the way we think. Even if this project ends, we have started something that will go on forever.”

Fund for Responsible Business

The Netherlands Enterprise Agency carries out FVO on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Would you like to know more about FVO? Please visit the FVO page or contact our advisors.