The criticized leather sector fights for sustainability

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Sep 14 2021

The National Leather Council held on September 13 at the Palais Brongniart (second district of Paris) the third edition of its Sustainable Leather Forum, a place for reflection on good practices in the industry. An edition where, naturally, they spoke of the health crisis, but above all of the transparency and sustainability efforts carried out by the leather industry in the face of new consumer expectations and an opposition to leather that represents a challenge for the industry.

In the center, Hélène Valade (LVMH). On the right, Franck Boehly (CNC). – MG / FNW

In the great auditorium of the Palais de la Bourse, under what was the heart of the French economy, more than 300 leaders and representatives of the leather industry gathered on this return from the holidays. A return that, for the 21 federations and 12,800 French leather companies, is notably the occasion for an inventory after months of crisis. Crisis in which the resistance of French luxury made it possible to reduce the effects on the sector, but did not protect it from all difficulties.

“Although the leather goods sector is doing well, other segments of our sector continue to suffer”, recalled in the preamble Frank Boehly, re-elected last June as head of the National Leather Council.

“In particular our small companies and SMEs, which represent 90% of the companies in our sector, taking into account all trades,” he added.

A point also addressed by the Deputy Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher, during a video message addressed to the participants. “I know that you have suffered the decline in activity due to the health crisis,” he stressed, addressing a solid and internationally recognized leather industry, “he said.

But the executive representative also stressed that actions related to sustainable development accelerated during this crisis. “I know I can count on you to duplicate efforts towards more sustainable and responsible fashion,” said Pannier-Runacher..

A welcome stimulus, but one that does not respond to the growing criticism of the sector. “There is the will of the State and the legislator to legislate on the environmental footprint of companies,” explained Frank Boehly, who points to the redundancies between the French and European texts.

“This accumulation of texts and standards creates a certain confusion that worries companies, especially the smallest ones, which are not in a position to implement these costly transformations within the requested deadlines. We must be careful not to let the bureaucratic apparatus apply measures that are inapplicable for companies and incomprehensible for consumers, “he said.

The chairman of the Strategic Committee for the Fashion and Luxury Sector (CSF), Guillaume de Seynes, also sent a video message to the participants. “It is a first step in opening our forum to other professions,” stressed Frank Boehly. For the leader of the CSF, “this crisis has demonstrated the reactivity of the sector through the mobilization of all the actors for the production of masks.”

Guillaume de Seynes made special mention of the CSF report on relocation and sustainability. “The objective is to double the participation of Made in France in the consumption of fashion and home products in five years,” said the manager, referring, beyond leather, to the efforts made in linen and wool, and to the experiments in around environmental labeling and traceability.

One of the most anticipated speeches of this edition was also that of Hélène Valade, director of environmental development of the LVMH group. She estimated that the sector is emerging from this crisis in a different way than it entered it. Presenting the group’s sustainable ambitions, Hélène Valade also revealed the working guidelines to be studied in relation to leather.

“We do not have fixed ideas at the moment. What interests us is to have ideas based on solid data”, indicates the leader, who thus evokes the will to regenerate the farms, (from animal welfare to the environmental impact of the same), analysis of leather tanning and saving methods (optimized cutting and waste use), not forgetting emerging alternatives to leather.

The leather sector in front of NGOs and activists

Critics of the leather industry occupied much of the forum. Especially through the perspective provided by sociologist Eric Dénécé. The director of the French Center for Intelligence Research (CF2R) recalled that activism for the animal cause only reached France in the early 2000s, where the sector is much older, and sometimes more violent.

“The vegan movement you are facing is just a small iceberg that hides a much bigger phenomenon.” Which, reaffirming the legitimacy of expressing their opinions, points to the threat of a ‘tunnel of radicalization’, in which ideology, structuring, militancy, activism and, finally, terrorism occur. Fortunately, we are still a long way from a stage in France, “says the observer, who nevertheless denounces Greenpeace’s concern about certain tensions in its ranks.


“We can criticize the methods, but we cannot deny that this allowed raising the alarm and mobilizing the actors on the issue,” said Jean-Luc Angot, president of the National Committee of Ethics of Slaughterhouses (CNEAB, for its acronym in French). referring to NGO videos about farms and slaughterhouses that do not meet the standards.

“We should not think in terms of struggle or reaction, but in terms of actions,” said the official.

The latter refers to the Egalim law, which expands the conditions already imposed on agricultural holdings on transport and slaughterhouses. “Animal welfare labeling is important for the consumer, but also to differentiate itself from other markets that do not follow the same animal welfare rules,” he said.

“Within NGOs there are real specialists that we can work with,” said Ywan Penvern, partner at Deloitte Sustainability France. He mentioned in particular the pilot projects around video surveillance analyzed by artificial intelligence to identify problems in farms and slaughterhouses.

“The increase in the proportion of top quality leathers”, recalled the specialist, “is the result of all the means that have led to a better disinfection of the premises, to the reduction of the sources of damage in the farms, to a increased vaccination against ringworm, to systematic treatment against lice ”.

But NGOs and activists are not the only ones targeting leather professionals. “Some use these issues as a political springboard. Others have hidden economic interests, with groups that make agreements not to be attacked, ”warned Eric Denécé.

“But there is also a competitive destabilization, with groups sending NGOs to their competitors. So it is not only the vegan NGOs against you, there are also, sometimes, other companies ”, highlighted the specialist.

Footwear brands versus sustainability

For this edition of the Sustainable Leather Forum, the CNC wanted to look at the specific case of footwear. Especially sports footwear and the efforts of groups and brands to make their offer sustainable, even beyond the use of leather, particularly in terms of long-distance orders, the sector has accounted for 480 million imported pairs in the 2019 financial year.


“We will not be able to buy these 480 million in France,” initially groped Mickaël Royer, vice president of the homonymous group (Kickers, Mod8, Charles Jourdan …). “Because we have lost some ‘savoir-faire’, but also due to the lack of investment in innovation that makes some Asian factories more modern than European ones”.

His group does not feed a global reflection on Made in France, beyond specific projects, in parallel with Portuguese, Spanish and Italian productions. Regarding the sustainability of the product, the group aims, for its part, to implement the GRS (Global Recycled Standard) labeling, which guarantees the use of recycled materials.

The Salomon group took on the challenge of 100% recyclable footwear with its Index.01 model, made of recycled polyester and TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane), with the aim of developing footwear made in France. This has been done recently. Salomon has just started producing its first models, which will go on sale in early 2022. A development enabled by the ASF 4.0 high-tech plant developed by the Ardèche Chamatex company, and of which Salomon is the main partner.

“Asia will continue to be the nerve center of sports footwear,” said Marie-Laure Piednoir, responsible for sustainable development of the brand, who, however, points out that Salomon has rationalized its supply of suppliers there, reducing to two, “which facilitates the controls”.

As for TBS, a brand of the Eram group, Made in France already represents 180,000 pairs per year and 20% of the turnover. A part that the company intends to promote. “This requires streamlining industrial processes, which are still quite archaic at times,” said Pauline Ranger, product manager for footwear.

She mentions a flip-flop project made from recycled seaweed and the “yourth” project, which will soon make it possible to offer a wool felt slipper in Morbihan. “Ecodesign is not just a product, it is an entire ecosystem that must be built,” summarized the person in charge.

Creator and director of the company Insoft, owner of the footwear brand Ector, Patrick Mainguené has made innovation, proximity and the environment his keywords. “We wanted to show that we could offer low-tech products to brands that were in demand,” explained the manufacturer, who participated in the recent “Cité de la Chaussure” project in Romans-sur-Isère and in the shoe recycling center project supported by ReFashion near Berlin.

“These millions of pairs are a deposit with which we do not know what to do and that we must know how to recycle,” said the manufacturer.

“Recycling a shoe is still very complicated because there are many components,” recalled Mickaël Royer.

“You can smash it all to try to do something again, but taking it apart piece by piece is still not an option. This is where Vinted and second hand are still the best solution. It is up to us to start from the principle that, if our products live longer, we will have to create them accordingly ”, concluded the leader.

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