For our month focused on Animal Welfare in fashion, we asked Juliette Sebille, journalist and director of Leather Fashion Design magazine, to share with us her insights on how to source leather responsibly. Through her platform, she provides inspiration and knowledge around leather manufacturing, technology, products, and brands. At the forefront of developments in the industry, she keeps an eye specifically also on sustainable initiatives, technology and legal developments. We are grateful to be able to share her valuable experience and knowledge with our readers here.
“70% of labels that do not include sustainable development in their charter will end up disappearing in the next few years.”– Meaningful Brands study carried out by the Havas group
Companies do not all share the same degree of commitment to sustainability but innovation is progressing along the entire value chain of the leather industry, with production of the material at the heart of the matter, as it causes the largest social and environmental footprint. So how can we choose reference materials with a clear conscience? Where do they come from? How are they made? What is needed to process them? Drawing on my years of experience and encounters as editorial director of leatherfashiondesign.fr magazine, specialised in the industry, here are my five suggestions for ensuring responsible sourcing.
1. Encourage the use of by-products
Whether it’s in Hong Kong, London, Milan or Paris, the question of sustainability is on everyone’s agenda. Indeed, professional shows such as Première Vision, Lineapelle and APLF are focusing most of their conferences on these subjects, while companies are dedicating most of their investment to the environmental transition. But, although we operate in a professional environment, when I talk to our younger colleagues, I realise that some of them know nothing about the sources of leather, and are convinced that we breed and slaughter animals just to produce the material! Our first reflex must be to make the truth known and remind them that the day we all stop eating meat, leather will disappear. This is not the case for exotic species, for which the breeding and hunting are subject to quotas and governed by the Washington Convention. Lately, initiatives have emerged that seek to upcycle and add value to all sorts of previously unused skins.
I’m thinking of fish skins (tuna, sturgeon, carpe and pirarucu) or rabbits from the food chain. Or the British company Billy Tannery, which has found outlets for British goat skins that had, until then, been incinerated, in collaboration with Cabrito. The latter company buys goat meat from dairy farms which raise the kids for up to seven months for local consumption rather than have them slaughtered at birth or exported. In a similar vein, in Mongolia, Addu Mal has created a sector for horse leather using skins that had previously been discarded. We are even seeing toad skins upcycled, making use of a species that has become an invasive pest in certain regions of the world. Worldwide, 7.7 million tons of skins are recycled by the tannery industry each year (source: FAO). However, if the tannery industry can boast of being the oldest recycling activity in the world, the leather sector has a lot still to improve, starting with its suppliers.
2. Ensure animal well-being
From the meadow to the store, the road is long and populated with many intermediaries. Between the farmer who barely scrapes a living from their activity to the consumer who is increasingly more knowledgeable and, quite legitimately, more demanding, the designer or buyer of leather cannot afford to make a mistake. When it comes to responsible sourcing, even when one is only looking for a handful of finished leathers for a collection, the key is being where the consumer expects you to be.
The consumer wants to be sure that everything has been done according to the regulations and thus requires total traceability. Will we one day talk about the existence of the animal whose skin is being used for a handbag? After having lost their credibility thanks to the behaviour of certain links in the value chain, it is probable that professionals will have to become increasingly more transparent in order to stand out from the rotten apples. Nobody can be indifferent to images of the cruel treatment of animals or the forests decimated to make land for farming. Each of us has to use our own judgement when images are shown outside of their context. But, this access to information is starting to change things and 100% sustainable and traceable sectors are emerging, placing animal well-being at the heart of their project.
Such as the Trace your Leather Cooperative (TLC) in the Netherlands, which encourages organic agriculture and sustainable development. It has created a virtuous chain of livestock farmers with organic certification (and also herds that graze freely and are fed exclusively from grazing), tanneries and designers keen to know the backstory of their animal hides. Some labels even trace as far back as the actual farm to ensure that the production takes into account the animal’s living conditions. One example is the French label Le Cuir est dans le Pré. It works exclusively with the leather of cows born and raised in the farms of the Mayenne, Sarthe and Orne departments of France that spend at least six months of the year grazing in meadows. This virtuous chain would not have been possible without the support of the local abattoir, (Teba-Pail at Pré-en-Pail) and a collector, (ACPM – Alpes Cuir & Peaux du Midi), which is then responsible for selecting the skins according to the specifications it has been given.
3. Trace the story of the leather from the farm onwards
In Europe, the transport and slaughter of animals is governed by regulations on animal protection and welfare. To go further, a French farmer has managed to raise 600 000 euros to develop Le Bœuf Éthique, an alternative supply chain for meat and quality skins. Following a Swedish model, the concept involves a mobile abattoir for cattle that will soon be able to travel from farm to farm, meaning the animals themselves do not have to be moved. But laws and customs are not the same in other regions of the world. In 2019, one million head of cattle born in Europe were transported outside of the EU, enduring long journeys until they reached their destination! We have no control over their fate. These animals pay the heavy price of purely economic thinking and globalisation, which drives the movement of live cattle from one continent to another.
We are facing a dilemma between two opposing desires: having anything, anywhere and at any time, if possible at the lowest price, yet wanting it to be produced in a responsible way. To address this, the leather industry must involve not only abattoirs but also livestock farmers and make sure that they have to account for their actions. In France, the Committee for the development of leather, footwear, leather goods and glove making (CTC) is working on a system for marking raw hides in the abattoir that would resist the tanning process and thus raise the standards of animal husbandry on farms. This brand-new system marks each individual skin with a laser and will automatically integrate into the production process. To this end, CTC works with tanneries to put in place a system of cameras that scan the codes in order to maintain perfect traceability from the herd on the farm to the finish and commercialisation of the leather end product. The goal: to ensure the well-being of the animal which then leads to better quality skins. Already in use this year on calf hides, it is currently at the prototype stage on lambskins.
4. Support innovation and sustainable development
What is true for animals is also true for our fellow humans. The current pandemic serves to corroborate the One Welfare One Health approach which shows the links between the health of people, animals and the planet. A well-managed sustainable transition has a positive impact on performance and profitability. Many producers are developing equitable partnerships with their manufacturers or suppliers. In France, Veja is undoubtedly the pioneer and an and emblematic example of this philosophy. Starting from the observation that the sneaker is one of the worst products in terms of the social and environmental conditions under which it is made, the company placed sustainable development at the heart of its DNA. The fashion industry has to consider the deterioration of soils and the loss of biodiversity caused by the industry’s use of agricultural products. By restoring a healthy and fertile soil capable of stocking the CO2 present in the atmosphere, regenerative agriculture can inverse the trend. And by joining forces with NGOs and Brazilian cooperatives, the label encourages organic production and, in an emerging economy like that of Brazil, provides financial support and greater remuneration to producers who undertake to respect its requirements.
The harmlessness of products for consumers and the environment is governed by the Reach regulations, which since 2007 lists, evaluates and monitors all chemical substances produced or imported in Europe. European manufacturers are required to respect these regulations but some, such as the chemicals firm L’Officina have gone one step further by anticipating the stronger restrictions of their clients. Similarly, in 2011 some of the biggest names in the luxury sector (Burberry, Coach, LVMH, Kering…) produced a best practices charter entitled Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals. The list of banned substances is updated every six months. For example, this Italian company already produces formaldehyde-free films to embellish leathers, in anticipation of its usage becoming illegal.
5. Think about the product life cycle
How can items be produced while limiting the consumption of resources and the generation of waste? Who can collect and upcycle the wide variety of waste products along all the stages of the chain? In response to these questions, most tanneries have acquired their own water treatment plants, in order to treat their waste water before sending it on to the municipal waste water plant. In Italy, in the well-known cluster of companies around Santa Croce in Tuscany, many tanneries have not waited for legislation to be passed before investing in the construction of a joint water treatment plant, Aquarno.. Soon an ambitious project will be launched (“Tubone”) which will make industrial water purification even more integrated. The result of an agreement between the Italian Ministry for the Environment, the region and the local authorities, the wastewater of 42 Tuscan towns will be redirected to the purifier. Once this water has been processed, the purifier will pipe it to the tanneries, which will no longer need to draw water from the water table.
Another essential aspect lies in the management and processing of waste. Initiatives and new outlets are being imagined to give a second life to industry waste. Waste from plant-based tannins is reused as fertilizer. Plastic containers used for packing or preserving the skins in crust on palettes are recycled. Shavings and offcuts of leather are shredded and agglomerated without any additives, then transformed into new materials such as the upcycled leather from Recyc Leather, the zero-waste leather thread from Atko Leather or the design objects made by the French start-up, Authentic Material. In a different register, new sourcing sectors are emerging thanks to the growing awareness of production professionals, who after spending a large part of their career as employees of big labels are now working to make use of dormant leather stocks, by creating new-generation resource centres for creators.
Last month, the EU Agriculture ministers agreed on a reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), with aid being directed to ecological approaches, meaning that agro-forestry, organic agriculture and farms that go beyond the environmental standards will receive additional funding. Something to keep an eye on.
Journalist and digital marketing expert in the luxury fashion industry, Juliette Sebille, is founder of the platform LFD (Leather Fashion Design). that was created to bring together all leather and fashion professionals from manufacturing to distribution.
Visit leatherfashiondesign.fr for more insights on developments in the leather industry. You will also be able to find a French version of this article.