From mushroom leather to pineapple and cactus, there’s been a move away from traditional leather of late amid growing environmental and ethical concerns among consumers (searches for ‘vegan leather’ have gone up 69 percent year-on-year, according to Lyst). But with many of these vegan alternatives still in their infancy, and often containing synthetic content, luxury fashion houses are increasingly looking at how they can produce cowhide more sustainably.
One such brand is Mulberry, which recently committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2035 as part of its Made to Last manifesto. Central to its philosophy is moving towards a hyper-local, “farm to finished product” supply chain, with regenerative farming techniques—which includes rotational grazing to maintain the health of the soil, allowing it to store more carbon—being a key focus.
“We are pushing the level of sustainability to the boundaries because it’s something that customers are asking [for], and we consider it the right thing to do,” Thierry Andretta, CEO of Mulberry, tells Vogue via video call. “When you use regenerative agriculture, we are also in a certain way, positive in carbon.”
To ensure transparency and traceability across its supply chain, Mulberry is only working with trusted suppliers in Europe, including members of the Scottish Leather Group—one of the biggest manufacturers of leather in the UK, and whose grass-fed beef and dairy farms operate with net-zero CO2 emissions. “We have this really supportive group of partners who we’ve talked to about our ambition to transform to a fully regenerative model,” says Charlotte O’Sullivan, global marketing and digital director at Mulberry.
Leather’s environmental footprint
It’s no secret that cattle farming has a huge environmental footprint. The industry is responsible for 14.5 percent of global CO2 emissions, as well as 36 percent of deforestation between 2001 and 2015, according to the World Resources Institute. While leather is often referred to as a byproduct of the meat industry, it is an in-built part of its business model—meaning it’s not simply waste that farmers are selling on.
While Mulberry’s move towards regenerative farms will substantially lower the CO2 footprint of its leather (the Scottish Leather Group says the company’s leather has an embedded footprint of 1.4kg CO2 per hide, compared to an average of 17kg CO2e per square metre, according to the Leather Panel), the size of the luxury leather market will mean this will be difficult to scale across the industry. “In this particular case, our size is a competitive advantage,” Andretta says. “We know we can achieve better.”
Beyond CO2 emissions, the tanning process—in which the cow’s hide is turned into leather—is another major concern due to the use of harmful chemicals, such as chromium, which can lead to the release of toxic waste into the environment. Mulberry says all of its tanneries will be environmentally accredited by the Leather Working Group, while brands such as SKIIM Paris are moving towards vegetable-tanning techniques.
“We really try our best to minimise the chemicals used, and prioritise natural and vegetable tanning processes,” the brand’s founder, Caroline Sciamma-Massenet, explains. “But for anything in black, there will be chrome used, otherwise the colour is never really consistent. But when there’s chrome there is less water [consumption], so it’s finding that balance.”
The longevity of leather
Although there are clear environmental improvements that still need to be made, advocates say that traditional leather remains the best material currently on the market. “In people’s minds, vegan leather is more sustainable, but in reality, it’s a lot of plastic,” Sciamma-Massenet says. “Natural leather is sustainable in the sense that when you keep it for such a long time, it’s an investment.”
For Mulberry, too, longevity is crucial. It repairs 10,000 bags a year as part of its restoration service, ensuring its bags remain in circulation, as well as launching a new resale platform, Mulberry Exchange (of course, buying pre-loved leather remains by far the most sustainable option). “We are doing everything we can to extend the life cycle of a product, and when we get a product back that we can’t repair, we put it into a waste reclamation programme so that it gets turned into energy,” O’Sullivan adds. “That regenerative approach is flowing through the whole business.”
New innovations such as Spinnova’s recycled leather-waste fibre also show the potential of extending the life of leather even further. “One of the biggest opportunities is that we can really close the loop by using our technology—that’s something of a breakthrough,” says company CEO Janne Poranen.
While alternative leather technologies continue to develop, producing traditional leather as sustainably as possible—and creating a product that will stand the test of time—is the top priority at Mulberry. “We are open to [alternative materials],” says Andretta. “But we don’t want to compromise on quality, and we don’t want to compromise on our Made to Last philosophy.”