Two conferences on sustainable development

A burning issue for the entire leather sector, sustainable development was, once again, at the heart of the programme of Première Vision Leather. One conference gave information about the minimum standards to respect in order to comply with current legislation before putting a product on the market, while another discussed more broadly how to respond to the environmental challenge. Read on for more on two of the highlights of the show.

 

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Commercialising leather items

The minimum legal requirement for a label is to commercialise products that are entirely harmless, guaranteed to have no impact on either the user’s health or the environment. Speaking on the second day of the show, Valérie Ladavière, an expert at the leather technical and research centre (Centre Technique du Cuir), explained the solutions for respecting this commitment. The first imperative is to respect the European Reach Regulations which list, evaluate and control chemical substances that have been made in Europe or imported there. Among the hundreds of pages of documentation produced by the EU and regularly updated, three major lists classify chemical products in substances as either subject to authorisation, subject to disclosure or with restricted use. These latter products can only be used in concentrations below certain thresholds set by the Regulation.

Of course, the application of such a Regulation is not straightforward. Because, in addition to the chemical products used directly by the label in the production process, the label must also ensure that all the constituent parts of the final article that have been purchased from sub-contractors do not contain any potentially dangerous substance either. “The label must contact each supplier and ask them for the Reach certification of each component it has provided,” the chemistry expert explained. Other regulations, such as the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants or the Biocides agreements must also be taken into account.

Standards set out the testing methods and they are binding, in contrast with Regulations which set the permitted levels. They therefore represent an irrefutable guarantee of the product’s harmlessness. But each region of the world, indeed each country, has its own standards, and for exports, it is essential to test the product according to the standards of the importing country.

In the case of leather, the most widely publicised chemical product is chromium. But it should be remembered that the chromium ion used to tan leather is chromium 3, which is totally harmless. The potentially dangerous chromium 6 ion only appears by oxidation of chromium 3, when the conditions of the reaction are poorly controlled.

 

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The leather industry and the environmental challenge

For decades now, fashion has been built around a growth model that was very successful but also irresponsible, generating overproduction, heavy consumption of a variety of resources and generating massive amounts of waste. At the round table organised on Tuesday 12 February, the moderator and experienced footwear professional, Nathalie Elharrar, opened the discussion with a rather alarming statement about the inflationist paradigm of the fashion industry. “We buy 60% more clothes than 15 years ago, but we keep them for half as long. 60% of purchased items end their lives incinerated in waste centres within a year of being made. 600 000 tons of clothes are sold each year in France but only 18% are sent to a recycling centre at their end of life.” Some startling statistics that demonstrate the urgency of the situation. For footwear, the figures are barely any better: “In 2017, global shoe production reached 23.5 billion pairs and at the same time, 23 billion pairs were thrown away, again with very little recycling.” It is urgent to do something to slow down this wastage and preserve the environment.

For a label, the levers available to improve its eco-responsibility include: the impact on various sites (production, distribution, management), logistics (carbon footprint), production materials, waste management. Analysis of the lifecycle of a product generates an environmental result that identifies the various weak points. However, there are many difficulties in improving the model. Economic first of all, in a context where competition is fierce and the purchasing power of consumers is lower. The opacity of subcontracting makes it complicated to be sure of the origins of a product. Certain steps in the production process seem to be difficult to access. And certain factories refuse small orders, which are frequently requested by eco-responsible labels. At the recent COP 24, 43 labels undertook to reduce their CO2 emissions by 30% by 2030. Many other labels are tackling the problem but refuse to communicate around it until they are irreproachable. A number of tools exist to help companies in their ecological transition. Such as the environmental balance sheet developed by Kering, which makes it possible to understand and measure impacts across the whole of the supply chain and translate them in financial terms. Product evaluation software can be used to quantify its environmental impact throughout its lifecycle. Consulting firms, training companies, resource organisations such as the ADEME, CTC, CFDA and the Leather Working Group, as well as various websites are there to assist companies in their efforts. And there is increasing demand for this from consumers.

Three guests told the conference about their initiatives to reduce the impact of their collections on the environment. Launched three months ago, the Atelier Bocage concept seeks to “propose an alternative form of consumption that is more environmentally respectful but does not deny fashion or style” explained the marketing director, Clémence Cornet. Customers pay a monthly subscription of 29 euros, and then make an appointment to choose a pair of shoes in the boutique. They can choose a new pair every two months, bringing the old pair back in exchange. The old pairs are sent to the factory at Montjean-sur-Loire where they undergo an antibacterial treatment, are cleaned, repaired, polished and placed on a last before being made available on the second-hand platform. “With this new model, we are encouraging our customers to change their way of consuming, by moving from a possession approach to a usage approach, moving from wastage to reusage. We are also working on the end of life of products, with a recycling centre and are reducing our use of raw materials,” she told us. “This has also allowed us to develop the repair service offered by the factory, making good use of the skills of our craftspeople and maintaining production in France.” Tested for more than three months in six pilot boutiques with around 30 customers, the formula has proven a success and will be extended in March to 36 stores in France.

The second speaker at this discussion was Catherine Dupon, who told us about the responsible philosophy of Atelier Bison, which she bought four years ago. “We have our own label and we also produce white label goods. In addition, we repair many of the old garments that people bring to us. We give them a second life by cleaning, re-dyeing them, changing the lining and certain components such as zips and refining the cut. For our own label we often buy dormant stock of skins that are struggling to find a buyer.”

A shoe designer and technician since her youth, Eva Klabalova has created the sneakers label Cave on the basis of reusing the offcuts of rubber used for other shoemakers and using the tools of an existing factory. “I watched the work in the factory and noted how much rubber was wasted. So, I had the idea of using these offcuts, combining them to make multicolour soles.” Located in the Czech Republic in the town of Zlin – former headquarters of the legendary Tomas Bata – she uses the old machines and moulds of the factory that hosts her, while creating sneakers with a contemporary allure. Combining past and present to create a better future.