How traceability and plant-based material innovations are cleaning up the leather supply chain

The global veganism movement is on the rise; in the last decade we have seen a 600% increase of people identifying themselves as “vegan” in the US, 350% in the UK, and 400% in Portugal, according to various reports. These changes in consumer behavior as well as overall concerns for animal welfare and the environmental impact of animal farming (deforestation, GHG emissions, etc.) are challenging the leather industry.

For me, as a luxury fashion buyer, being able to inform our customers about the materials of the products they buy becomes increasingly important. Most of our customers still consider real leather as a truly luxurious and durable material. However, some of them are also becoming more aware of leather’s environmental impact and concerned about animal welfare.  

As far as I can see, there are two possible developments as a direct result of the rising awareness of traceability and animal welfare in the fashion supply chain;

  1. The leather industry will work harder to achieve better traceability and will demand higher animal welfare standards from their suppliers.
  2. More leather alternatives will enter the market and take share away from traditional leather, meeting the demand for true “vegan” and more sustainable materials.

Traceability and plant-based material innovations are entering the market and becoming more scalable, but are they really cleaning up the leather supply chain? Here’s what I learned:

Responsible leather production:
know where it comes from and how it is made

Whereas before, fashion buyers would mostly look at style, fit, quality and durability of products, today we are taking a closer look at the materials used from a sourcing perspective. What materials are used, what was their origin in case of the real leather and how can they be communicated on the product to the customer (i.e. special material tags, brand story etc.).

Within the leather industry, material traceability is one of the major challenges. It can vary depending on the scope of production, the location, and according to the type of hides. Some manufacturers source directly from slaughterhouses and can therefore trace back their leather to the animal. However, a large proportion of leather is bought and sold through traders, thereby reducing the transparency of supply. Additionally, there are no global traceability tools or compulsory certifications available yet along the chain. This makes it particularly hard to obtain a clear view of leather production starting at the farm, through tanning, to finishing processes.

Several organizations, such as the Leather Working Group (LWG), are working with industry stakeholders to encourage and establish benchmarks for more responsible and transparent leather production. Today, the LWG has around 850 members globally and claims to have achieved significant improvements in the sector. Other organizations work at a more local or national level, such as the Syndicat Général des Cuirs et Peaux (French Hides Association). They are currently collaborating with the CTC (Conseil National du Cuir) on implementing a new traceability process based on laser technology. This tool will allow them to (re)produce and easily “read” a unique ID number given to an animal at its farm of origin, or abattoir, through permanent laser marking, enabling traceability from the raw hide until the finished leather.

Having a way of knowing where a hide comes from and how the animal was taken care of would improve animal welfare and reassure conscious consumers still wishing to buy real leather. Keeping track of chemicals involved in all the manufacturing stages, especially the notorious tanning process, would encourage the use of sustainable chemicals thereby helping to reduce the environmental impact of leather production. A leading example of a company seeking supply chain transparency and continuous improvement is the sneaker brand, Veja. As they point out in their brand story: “(we) focus on two major ways of improving our leather production chain: traceability and chemical transparency. We know where it comes from and what’s in it”. One-third of their sneakers are actually 100% vegan, but the other two-thirds are made with leather that comes from organic farms where cows are fed only on native vegetation. Their tanneries are audited and Gold certified by the LWG.

Leather alternatives

With the demand for vegan fashion becoming mainstream, the global leather alternatives market, currently valued at $25 billion, is projected to reach $45 billion by 2025. This almost 100% increase is proof that fashion brands are also seeking non-animal leather alternatives, to tap into the growing market and respond to the growing consumer demand. Most of the leather alternatives today are still made of synthetic fibers. But there is an increasing number of new innovative materials entering the market; from plant-based fabrics made from agricultural waste to new generation bio-tech fabrications.

Can these leather alternatives become truly scalable and  sustainable solutions? And will they be embraced by the luxury customers and those who don’t agree with using synthetics instead? 

Synthetic leather

Most “vegan leather” is made out of synthetics, such as PU (polyurethane) and PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which are basically, plastics. Largely used by fast fashion brands, they are relatively inexpensive to produce. These materials can mimic virtually any kind of real leather texture and any color imaginable. Based on the (somewhat controversial) Sustainable Apparel Coalition Higgs Index, PU leather has a lower environmental footprint than traditional leather in terms of GHG emissions, water- and land pollution, and deforestation. However, as a “plastic”, it still has a significant negative impact, due to the amount of energy and water needed for production, its use of nonrenewable resources (petroleum), and the microplastics that are shed in use and end of life. It is also not as durable as real leather, therefore it doesn’t take long before it goes to landfill or incineration. It cannot be recycled and it doesn’t biodegrade. PVC – often used for transparent vinyl accessories – is actually very toxic. Greenpeace literally calls it the “single most environmentally damaging of all plastics”.

Many brands, especially in the luxury sector, are moving away from using PVC. Also for leather fabric backing, more and more brands are using more sustainable materials instead of polyester to reduce the overall negative impact.

Plant-based leather alternatives

It is inspiring to see that today, many brands and designers continue to look for more sustainable solutions and are open to explore new materials to work with.

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The more recent plant-based leather materials that having been entering the market are certainly very promising and appealing to the increasing number of consumers and brands concerned with animal welfare. They seem to provide better alternatives to fully synthetic PU leather which is based on non-renewable resources. But we have to keep in mind that these materials are relatively new innovations. They still require further development and full lifecycle analyses to better understand their environmental impact. Some of them are not fully, or even not at all, biodegradable. Some still need to use synthetic coating and glues to make them look and feel like leather, which means they still require nonrenewable resources. And, as with synthetic leather, many of the plant-based leathers are less durable than animal-based leather.

New generation leather alternatives

The industry is continuously innovating, seeking to develop more sustainable and durable solutions. Here are a few examples of what the future leather alternatives might look like:

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It is encouraging and exciting to see that, in the age-old leather industry, pioneering entrepreneurs are finding solutions to better care for animals, for the environment and the workers involved. It will bring us a new generation of materials that are as durable as real leather, if not more, steer away from non-renewable resources, are completely biodegradable and recyclable thus leading us a step closer to the circular economy model.

I believe that, in the very near future, and especially in the luxury market segment, sustainability, ethical production and traceability will become key criteria upon which buyers choose their brands and products.  


Tatsiana Shanina is a fashion retail professional with 15+ years of experience in buying, product development, and strategy management of designer brands. Visit her member profile.

On her blog littlesustainabledress.com she takes you on her journey to gain insights on on the social and environmental impact of the fashion industry.

Sources

  • https://msi.higg.org/sac-materials/3/leather
  • https://www.voguebusiness.com/technology/vegan-faux-leather-stella-mccartney-prada-versace
  • https://supplycompass.com/sustainable-fashion-guides/#sustainable-material
  • https://keringcorporate.dam.kering.com/m/2b0fd1f253475285/original/Document-Kering-Standards-for-raw-materials-and-manufacturing-processes-EN-.pdf
  • http://globalfashionagenda.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Pulse-of-the-Fashion-Industry_2017.pdf
  • https://thewardrobecrisis.com/podcast/2020/4/29/podcast-116-animals-have-feelings-too-compassion-in-world-farmings-philip-lymbery
  • https://regenerationinternational.org/why-regenerative-agriculture/
  • https://project.veja-store.com/en/single/leather
  • https://foodrevolution.org/blog/vegan-statistics-global/
  • https://leatherfashiondesign.fr/tracabilite-cuirs-peaux-bruts-enjeu-filiere/