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A look at Mulberry's plans to develop world's 'lowest carbon leather'

A person  rests their hand and mobile phone on their designer Mulberry bag, whilst messaging on their phone.

Mulberry has always offered repair for its bags. The company's new sustainability strategy aims to further extend the life of its bags.

Pranav Kukreja

Mulberry this week published a sweeping new sustainability strategy that sets out how the iconic handbag brand intends to transform its business to deliver a regenerative and circular business model "from field to wardrobe" by the end of the decade.

Among the commitments unveiled by the British fashion designer are pledges to develop the world's lowest carbon leather, pioneer a "hyper-transparent" supply chain model and achieve net-zero across its operations and supply chain by 2035 with some use of offsets.

"Our manifesto is based on three things," Thierry Andretta, chief executive of Mulberry, told BusinessGreen last week. "It is based on regenerative agriculture, it's based on sourcing transparency — because we think consumers are asking for that — and it's based on zero [emission] manufacturing."

The firm will achieve its net-zero target by sourcing leather made at organic, environmentally responsible farms that have achieved carbon neutrality and are not contributing to deforestation, he said, while simultaneously taking steps to reduce the emissions of its manufacturing processes and shipping. 

Andretta admitted the company may explore alternatives to leather in the future, but stressed the "reality" is that the market still wants real leather goods. "So we want to be the one above the line pushing the boundaries to the extreme level of how you can respect environment... and go back to a regenerative agriculture," he said.

Work will start on emissions reduction in earnest after the results of the firm's first carbon audit are published this summer, he added, noting the firm plans to report annually on its emissions from 2022.

Our manifesto is based on 3 things. It is based on regenerative agriculture, it's based on sourcing transparency — because we think consumers are asking for that — and it's based on zero [emission] manufacturing.

While fashion brands' supply chains are notoriously complex and opaque, the firm claims it will benefit from having more than 50 percent of its manufacturing already in the U.K. "We're able to control that in a very direct manner," Charlotte O'Sullivan, global marketing and digital director at Mulberry, told BusinessGreen. Offsets will be required in the short and medium term, she said, largely to counter the firm's logistics footprint. "While all of it is is obviously challenging, logistics is probably the element that we have the least direct control of," she explained.

In addition to its plans to reduce the footprint of new handbags, the firm also has made a number of pledges designed to keep Mulberry bags in circulation for longer, this week vowing to repair, buy back, resell and repurpose all the bags it sells.  

Mulberry always has offered customers a lifetime service guarantee on its bags and claims to repair more than 10,000 bags every year for customers at a factory in Somerset. However, its new sustainability strategy aims to further extend the life of its bags and this week the brand will launch a dedicated resale section on its website, the Mulberry Exchange, which will allow customers to sell their used bags back to the company in exchange for a credit with the firm. Meanwhile, a partnership with pre-owned fashion online retailer Vestiare Collective provides another outlet for sales of used bags, according to the company. These schemes build on the success of a physical buy back and resell pilot launched in flagship stores in London and New York last year, it said.

Andretta confirmed the firm expects to expand the buy back and resale business worldwide, noting that demand for second hand goods was growing across the luxury segment. "We consider that there is also a trend of reconsidering pre-owned things," he said. "It appeals to a certain kind of personal taste, an individuality, where sometimes you don't want to be recognized for a new bag with everyone knows because of the advertising campaign; you want to have a personal choice." 

An internal committee at Mulberry will be tasked with considering the condition of used bags and decide on the price point for the article by monitoring what similar items are going for regionally on flea markets, Andretta explained. The seller of the bag, meanwhile, will be issued with a voucher they can spend on a new or second-hand Mulberry bag. 

The launch of physical Mulberry Exchanges in stores on Bond Street in London and New York last year saw huge appetite among customers for second-hand purchasing, according to O'Sullivan, stressing that customers enthusiastically jumped on an opportunity to find and purchase limited edition bags. "We could see very directly and very immediately how it resonated with our customers," she said. "I think that gives us an incredible insight in terms of trends."

O'Sullivan added that Mulberry's largely direct-to-consumer business model allows the firm to really gauge customer appetite for new sustainability initiatives and implement changes quickly. "We're 90 percent direct to consumer," she explained. "So when we test something, when we launch something, we get incredibly immediate and direct feedback… That means that we can test, can roll out, adjust, amend — it's a great position to be in to trial a lot of these innovations." 

Bags that have reached the end of their life will be bought back and converted into a fuel through a new partnership with Scottish leather brand Muirhead, a member of the Scottish Leather Group, the company has revealed. The pioneering take-back scheme will see end-of-life leather converted into fuel at the company's thermal energy plant, ensuring that old leather contributes to the manufacture of new products.

The news comes just a week after analysts at UBS warned that consumer demand for sustainable alternatives to "fast fashion" was set to significantly shake up the industry. At the same time, campaigners and investors are stepping up pressure on the wider fashion industry to tackle its massive environmental footprint.

As such, Mulberry is also looking to work with the wider industry to curb its supply chain impacts. O'Sullivan argued that current certification standards for leather do not go far enough in delivering a circular economy, noting that he company expects to source all leather in its collection from environmentally accredited tanneries by the end of the year, but this standard falls short of Mulberry's aspirations to get materials "back to the farm."

"By autumn-winter 22, we will have achieved 100 percent environmental certification for our entire collection," she said. "That's great to have environmental accreditation, but that's not getting us back to the farm."

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