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For a while now fashion retailers such as Marks & Spencer in the UK, Swedish fashion giant H&M, Spanish headquartered chain Zara or U.S. brands such as North Face or Eileen Fisher, to name just a few, have been offering take-back programmes of used clothing.
The sight of donation bins and collection boxes is becoming more commonplace in retail stores, but most concentrate on clothing and textiles, and while a few include footwear, we do not see many that encourage the recycling of leather goods on a sizeable scale.
Why is that? Is it a lack of knowledge of whether and how this can be managed, or a lack of resources and infrastructure, or ultimately a lack of will to explore viable avenues? Or is it really because offering such recycling-initiatives is an easy way for fashion brands to be seen as though they are doing their bit to reduce the waste – that they are responsible for in the first place – when in fact it’s a clever scheme to encourage shoppers to continue their spend on new clothes (and with a seemingly clear conscience, as they have just ‘recycled’ their cast-offs), as they exchange their old clothes for in-store credit, incentivised to buy into the ever new collections that hit the stores on a monthly, sometimes weekly basis. Brands are only too happy to promote their sustainability-credentials via the take-back schemes (and bag positive PR in the process), while in fact the throwaway, fast fashion cycle of consumption continues.
In reality, there is a big question mark over the effectiveness of these clothes collections. Critics point out that just a very small percentage of the collected clothes is actually being turned into new textiles – it is estimated that only about 1% can be used for new clothing, while 35% is being downcycled into inferior goods such as cleaning cloths and insulation - with the vast majority being shipped thousands of miles away only to be burned or ending up in landfill anyway.
Recycling is part of true circularity
Granted, the recycling of materials, any material, is challenging; it’s a highly complex and expensive process. Most of our clothes are made from blended fibres, and it’s very complicated to pull them apart and break down into their virgin components, though there are examples of technological advances with regards to cotton and polyester as pioneered by the likes of Worn Again or EVRNU, which are said to recycle these materials into virgin-equivalent (and apparently cost-competitive) raw materials.
With leather goods there is obviously the added factor of the chemical treatment of leather itself, but also the fact that leather goods also feature mixed materials such as zips, glues and stitching, which complicate the recycling process. That said, the recycling of leather is a route that has to be part of the overall discussion of circularity and sustainability. After all, the USP and key characteristic of leather is that it has natural longevity, so at the point when it may have out-lived its originally intended format, say as a shoe or a couch, can we find ways to re-purpose the leather, recycle it or give it a second life?
Consumers are increasingly aware of the negative impact on the environment their consumption has, and with more scrutiny over how things are produced and what they are made of, demand for goods made from recycled materials is likely to increase, similar to what we already see with paper and plastics.
We talk a lot about circular economies, with some great developments around waste and carbon footprint reduction at the manufacturing stage, but innovation also needs to happen around end-of-life use, recycling, upcycling and repurposing of leather to achieve true circularity.
More funding in development and research
The onus here is not just on the leather industry itself, which is already making strides in this respect, but also on brands and retailers themselves. They need to fund and drive development and research and invest in the companies that are exploring better recycling methods and seek cross-industry partnerships with the leather industry and other material technologists in order to pioneer new solutions for a circular model, where raw materials are being recaptured and returned into the supply chain.
For circularity and sustainability are not just about cleaner processes and waste-reduction at production stage, but also about finding alternative uses for post-consumer goods and successful re- and upcycling of materials at the end of their life. The question we have to tackle is: What else can be done with leather items at the end of their primary life-cycle?
There are already some great examples out there of successful re- or upcycling of leather into fantastic new products. U.S. footwear brand Alice & Whittles, for instance, makes high-fashion shoes from post-industrial leather taken from waste generated when making luxury European car seats. Or EcoDomo, which manufactures and designs sustainable luxurious architectural features made from recycled leather, which have formed the basis for some truly inspiring creations, including leather panels in hotel lobbies made from reconditioned belts, leather panelled stairs etc. But we need more.
Creative solutions and visionary thinking
As it stands, recycling technology is not yet sufficiently advanced to be applied on an industrial scale, plus the cost and logistical effort are added obstacles. However, as technology and recycling methods advance, could taking back used leather to re-process for another production cycle be the future? No doubt, this requires vision, investment, an adjusted infrastructure and time, but above all, a collective will to engage in this conversation in the first place.
Consumer behaviour is moving increasingly towards less and more conscious consumption, you just have to look at the success of resale sites such as TheReaReal, Vestiaire Collective or ThredUp. It makes good business sense for brands and their material suppliers to devise strategies not just to generate more sales and growth via new products, but also offer viable solutions for the end of the consumption cycle of these goods. If their commitment to sustainability is to be more than just lip service and an empty token gesture, they need to play a more active role in finding innovative and creative solutions.
Isabella Griffiths, Editor