The leather industry covers diverse products and industrial processes. Leather tanning covers the treatment of raw materials, i.e. the conversion of raw hide or skin into leather and finishing it so that it can be used in the manufacture of a wide range of consumer products. The footwear, garment, furniture, automotive and leather goods industries are the most important outlets for EU tanners' production.
The leather tanning industry uses hides and skins (by-products from the meat and dairy industry) that would otherwise be disposed of by being sent to landfills or incinerated. Leather is the tanning sector's fundamental output. It is an intermediate industrial product, with applications in downstream sectors of the consumer goods industry.
The most important outlets for EU tanners' production are:
The processing of hides and skins also generates other by-products, which find outlets in several industry sectors such as pet and animal food production, fine chemicals (including photography and cosmetics), and fertilisers.
The leather and related goods sector comprises about 36,000 enterprises and generates a turnover of EUR 48 billion. These enterprises employ around 435,000 people.
The EU is the source of some of the highest value calfskins in terms of leather and raw material. Tanneries in the European Union are typically family-owned, small and medium-sized enterprises. Regional concentration is strong, and the industry often plays a key role in the local economy, being the predominant creator of wealth and employment.
The leather tanning industry is a global industry, and EU tanners are highly dependent on access to raw materials and to export markets. The EU tanning industry is still the world's largest supplier of leather in the international market place. This is despite the shrinkage of the share of the EU in world markets due to the development of the leather industry in other regions of the world such as Asia and the Americas.
European tanners face two types of trade barriers:
Since access to European raw materials has become more difficult (because beef production and the slaughter rate have dropped in recent years), access to raw materials outside Europe is crucial. Many non-EU countries maintain export bans and restrictions for raw hides and skins. Market access improvements are expected first and foremost in the context of the World Trade Organization where the European Commission supports the overall withdrawal of all export restrictions by different WTO members. To ensure that European industries have fair access to the raw materials they need, the European Commission has elaborated an integrated strategy as presented in its 2008 Communication, 'The raw materials initiative: meeting our critical needs for growth and jobs in Europe'.
The CIRCABC database (the Commission’s Communication and Information Resource Centre for Administrations, Businesses and Citizens) has detailed production and trade data on the leather industry in the EU.