Vegetable tannin based on sea buckthorn

The fashion industry now has many sustainable innovations. FashionUnited previously looked at textile innovations, but of course much more is happening. Due to the use of heavy metals such as chromium during the traditional tanning of leather, considerable preservation can also be done in this process. DesertSpring sees a gap in the market here and introduces the first vegetable tannin based on sea buckthorn.

The advantages

The current standard tanning process uses a lot of heavy metals and also raw materials based on fossil materials. For example, chromium is used in tanning, and during the process there is a chance that a hazardous substance called chromium-6 may be released. A large amount of salts and acids are also used in this process. DesertSpring wants to offer a circular, metal- and chromium-free tannin, based on sea buckthorn leaves, where the sea buckthorn is also grown sustainably and prevents soil erosion. DesertSpring is an innovation of Smit & Zoon, venture building studio Enviu and SN Botanicals.

During a video call, Pim Wilgenburg of Smit & Zoon explains that sea buckthorn-based tannins are naturally water-soluble, while other tannins are chemically processed so that they become water-soluble. “So you skip a whole chemical step. The fewer chemical operations in the process, the better in the end.” In addition, the leather does not discolour, which is often the case with other vegetative tanning agents. Wilgenburg also indicates that it can guarantee the leather quality that high-end brands expect.

The sea buckthorn plant is grown in a fully transparent supply chain in China. Only the leaves are harvested for DesertSpring, leaving the plants intact. This protects the local biodiversity and the local population can still harvest the berries. Wilgenburg adds that with many vegetarian tannins the plant has to be felled and that sea buckthorn is therefore harvested non-destructively.

Sea buckthorn grows well on poor soils and improves soil conditions thanks to its unique root system. In China, the plants are placed on a large scale to prevent soil degradation. By harvesting the leaves, DesertSpring says it provides a new source of income for the affected regions and encourages soil improvement projects. Siegfried Kruger of Enviu adds that the first tests were carried out this summer with the harvesting of sea buckthorn. These tests have shown that mostly women between forty and sixty pick the leaves and it is seen as a welcome extra income on the limited disposable income that is the norm in these rural areas.

The challenges

At the moment, Enviu, Smit & Zoon and SN Botanicals are in a process of ‘learning, growing and commercializing’, according to Wilgenburg. The small scale that the project currently has means that the ‘economics’ are not yet where the parties want them to be. “Compared to other tannins, we are currently expensive if you make a purely economic calculation. If you look at the value it adds to a product and production scale-up has been achieved, it becomes a completely different story.”

The fact that with sea buckthorn everything depends on the harvest can be seen as a potential challenge for parties. It is different from traditional tanning agents, where it is easy to scale up. “As a brand, you have to think about collections for 2022 and 2023. Then you have to calculate how many tanning agents are needed and how many leaves have to be picked. That amount is then reserved,” says Kruger. However, he emphasizes that after the positive results of the pilot last summer, the scale will be increased tenfold for next year and then doubled year on year.

How further?

Both Wilgenburg and Kruger agree: the tannin based on sea buckthorn leaves is currently especially attractive for luxury brands and brands where sustainability is of paramount importance. Discussions are currently underway with various brands to enter into so-called ‘lighthouse projects’ to produce, for example, 500 bags using Desertspring. Which brands these are, cannot yet be revealed. What is certain is that Desertspring’s door is always open to brands that are interested.

The collaborations with brands are meant to learn more, but also to set an example for the industry. “Because we show that it is possible, we see that there are opportunities in the field of tannins. That is already starting a change in the industry,” says Wilgenburg.

Picking the leaves. Image via Desertspring

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