Transparency: a “fashionable” concept?

Transparency has become a watchword in fashion when we talk about sustainable development, especially for the leather sector.

If we look at the definition of the concept of transparency – “Perfect accessibility of information” (Larousse) – we can see that the subject is vast. It covers notions that are evolving rapidly due to consumer questioning of labels, resulting in a demand for more information about the materials being used.

© Tanneries Roux

Product labelling

Bear in mind that in terms of transparency, the first “accessible” information communicated to clients and relating to materials is the “fibre composition label”. This information, which can be considered rather basic, tells the consumer the type and quantity of materials used to make the article. This first level of information plays an important role for the consumer when they are evaluating the value for money of their purchase, as they will not consider an item that is made from 100% leather in the same way as an article made from a synthetic leather substitute.

This information is required and regulated by law and offers the consumer protection as, for the sale of finished goods in France, retailers have a legal responsibility to comply with labelling rules. Two decrees in particular govern footwear and any product containing leather or similar materials, other than footwear (1).

For the distributor, in the event of any doubt about the product being sold, there are solutions for identifying the materials used to make shoes, bags, belts and clothing, in order to avoid labelling errors. For leather, histological analysis not only distinguishes real leather from synthetic substitutes, but can also identify the specific animal species or the material used to create the artificial leather.

This label remains the main source of information and it is important to use it carefully; there is no point embarking on other forms of communication if this baseline information is not provided properly!

Changes in product labelling: environmental information

It is clear that this compulsory information is no longer enough and we have seen the emergence of experiments and new regulations that expand the range of information offered to the client.

For example, in France, the recent law on the circular economy sets out non-binding rules relating to “environmental labelling” of products and services in five pilot sectors: furniture, textiles, hotels, electronic products and food products (2). Companies will have to make a significant amount of effort to supply this information, but the approach would appear to be unavoidable. We only need look at what has happened in the food and cosmetic sectors, where “independent” applications provide consumers with information about the components and quality of the products!

Some companies have already realised this and have anticipated the requirements, so for example “environmental labelling” is already being rolled out by Décathlon® for its textiles and clothing ranges. The information takes the form of a pictogram placed on the product and includes a score given to the articles according to their environmental impact. A worthy initiative.

Traceability and transparency from the farm to the finished leather

In addition to the traditional composition label, on the one hand, and the environmental labelling on the other, when it comes to leather, the consumer seems to want to know other information that is even more complex to obtain.

Details relating to animal well-being, for example, or deforestation, will require the use of traceability tools in order to show where the leather came from.

The difficulty lies in the fact that this traceability, from the animal to the finished product, is not yet available, and this is the stumbling block in the effort to offer greater transparency.

Let us look at what traceability means: “The possibility of following a product through its various stages of production, from processing to commercialisation, notably in the food sectors” (Larousse). The definition says it all, and makes clear the scale of the task of “following a product through its various stages of production”, bearing in mind that for leather, production starts on the farm.

For a long time, farming has had a system of traceability for living animals and their identification, notability for sanitary quality in the food chain.

In some countries, this takes the form of branding the animal, such as in the USA, Brazil, and elsewhere. These days the procedure is less widely used as it has two major drawbacks: it is painful for the animal and, depending on where the marking is placed, it can damage the skin and reduce its value, because the branding will appear on the finished leather, rendering the branded area unusable.

In Europe and notably in France, the most common practice is painless to the animal, as most of the time it involves placing a label on the ear. The biggest inconvenience with this system is that the information disappears at the abattoir because it is not placed on the raw hide, thus raising the problem of traceability and continuity of information.

There are few solutions available today for tracing the skin of an animal from the farm to the finished product, but promising work is underway.

Mention should be made of the American company, Applied DNA Sciences®, which uses a synthetic DNA to identify the skin throughout its entire production process. Synthetic DNA is first placed on the live animal, then placed again on the raw hide and then included in the finished leather in the tannery, with the information being used to identify batches of finished products, footwear, leather goods, etc.

Another innovative solution is being developed by CTC, the French research centre, which has worked with leather professionals to refine a solution that is fully operational.

This system takes the information identifying the animal on the original label and uses laser marking to place the information on the raw hide in the abattoir in a way that does not alter the quality of the future leather. The marking is resistant enough to remain in place through the various stages of the tanning process. This is a very promising initiative.

This tool was initially developed to improve the monitoring of farming best practices, in order to improve the quality of the hide, but it is clear that it could also be used for other purposes, notably to monitor animal well-being.

We can see that transparency is a widely-used concept and is also a demand from the consumer, but it is only in its infancy and is not fully implemented today. One thing is certain though: while transparency is a “fashionable’ concept at the moment, once widely available it will become a “sustainable” concept as well!

 

Yves Morin

Consultant for Première Vision Leather

 

(1)       Decree 96-477 relating to footwear and decree 2010-29 applying to any product containing leather or similar materials, other than footwear.

(2)       Law 2015-992 of 17 August 2015 relating to the energy transition for green growth.