How companies can source leather more sustainably

Gucci, leather
Gucci
The luxury fashion brand, part of Kering, reused 11 tons of leather scraps in 2018 and is expanding its circular production methods.

In conjunction with the release of the Textile Exchange 2019 Material Change Index, GreenBiz has partnered with Textile Exchange to publish actionable insights for apparel and textile companies looking to source raw materials more sustainably. The entire series may be found here.

Leather is one of the oldest materials in the world. Early humans wore the cleaned pelts of animals to make use of every part of what they had hunted and, according to National Geographic, there is evidence to suggest that Neanderthals were tanning leather (cleaning the hide of hair and treating it for preservation) 100,000 years ago.

Today, the vast majority of leather comes from cows, which has environmental and animal welfare implications. Rearing livestock has water, land use and carbon impacts, and the leather tanning process can be polluting. Animal welfare is another issue that needs to be managed, and there have been some extreme cases of abuse that reflect poorly on the industry. 

As an organization, Textile Exchange supports the apparel and textiles sector in switching to preferable materials that have a more positive impact on people and the environment compared to conventional. Leather is already a by-product of the slaughter process, making use of what otherwise would go to waste. Two currently available preferred options are organic and recycled, but they are relatively small in scale.  

Textile Exchange is working on Responsible Leather, which will provide a wide-scale solution that addresses the entire value chain, from calf to final product. The tool will be made up of the following components:

  • An animal welfare benchmark
  • Deforestation- and conversion-free criteria
  • A leather benchmark
  • Traceability requirements for the leather processing part of the value chain 
  • A credit trading scheme for the farm part of the value chain
  • Reporting requirements for brands, using the Textile Exchange Corporate Fiber and Materials Benchmark (CFMB) 

Another relevant multi-stakeholder initiative is the Leather Working Group (LWG). The LWG focuses on addressing the environmental shortcomings of leather production and audits and grades tanners based on how environmentally friendly their business practices are. It is a member of the Textile Exchange Responsible Leather Round Table, and its bronze standard will be used in the leather production benchmark. 

Leather

 

How can companies level up their leather sourcing strategy?

Every year, Textile Exchange publishes a Material Change Index that tracks the fashion industry’s progress toward more sustainable materials sourcing, as well as alignment with global efforts such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the transition to a circular economy. Leather was introduced as a pilot module in 2019, allowing Textile Exchange to get a sense of sector performance and best practices before the material is fully integrated into the benchmark survey in 2020.

There are some key activities that top performers in the leather category have in common, which should serve as inspiration for companies looking to push their preferred leather programs to the next level.

1. Identify high-risk regions

Not all leather-sourcing regions are equally at risk when it comes to animal welfare, deforestation and land degradation. This means that mapping the supply chain and understanding the risks and opportunities specifically related to different countries is a meaningful exercise. Some areas of the world are much more high-risk when it comes to issues such as intensive farming. The Amazon, for example, is projected by the World Wildlife Foundation to lose one-quarter of its forests by 2030 due to cattle-ranching and agriculture.

Knowing how much a supply chain is concentrated in higher-risk regions can enable a company to better focus its efforts. Work with key suppliers and other stakeholders in at-risk areas to implement targets related to maintaining biodiversity or managing land, and ensure you’re aligned on approaches to animal welfare. 

2. Engage with industry initiatives

Get involved with current industry efforts to understand and improve the sustainability performance of leather, such as Textile Exchange’s Responsible Leather Round Table and the Leather Working Group. Another way to promote wider impact across the industry is to partner with other brands to align on quality and quantity standards expected from common suppliers, ideally ones that have been certified in some capacity.

Material change in action: Leather is a heritage material for Clarks — the company has been using it since it started making shoes in 1825 — and for this reason, it has prioritized responsible leather sourcing.

In 2005, Clarks joined with other companies to create an industry solution for more sustainable leather and became a founding member of the Leather Working Group (LWG). Since then, its focus has been on helping its tanneries engage with the initiative by working toward LWG Medal status.

Today, over 90 percent of the leather Clarks sources is from LWG Gold, Silver or Bronze medal rated tanneries, compared to 55 percent in 2013. For companies working towards similar results, Catriona Stevenson, sustainability manager at Clarks, advised, "Take a long-term view and work collaboratively with your suppliers and other stakeholders to learn and build industry solutions."

Clarks, leather, shoes
Clarks
Clarks has been using leather as a material for its shoes since 1825 and has prioritized responsible sourcing.

3. Invest in innovation

Top performers in the leather category see the power of innovation and have taken meaningful steps to foster a culture of "thinking outside the box" within their organizations. This requires convening forums where ideas can be exchanged, breaking down silos between functions and creating an experimental culture where it’s OK to fail. It also can take the form of investing in emerging recycled materials or bio-based leather alternatives — new materials made from inputs such as collagen, cork and pineapple are in development.

Material change in action: Gucci, owned by global luxury group Kering, has invested in innovative technologies and processes to sustainably improve its leather manufacturing. The luxury house created a set of best practices around tanning and started using metal-free tanning in 2015. Then, in 2018, Gucci launched two major programs to ramp up sustainability for leather: circular initiative Gucci-Up and waste reduction initiative Scrap-Less.

Gucci-Up upcycles waste leather generated during the production process, amounting to the reuse of 11 tons of leather scraps in 2018. The Scrap-Less program has Gucci cutting hides down to size before tanning. By only processing what the house actually plans to use, Gucci was able to reduce leather waste by 66 tons and chemical consumption by 145 tons in 2018.

"Gucci is focused on sustainably sourcing all our raw materials, including leather. In parallel, we are constantly looking for — and creating — new ways where we can adopt a circular approach so that we rely less and less on new resources," explained Antonella Centra, executive vice president, general counsel for sustainability and corporate affairs at Gucci, to highlight the importance of focusing company efforts on the entire value chain.