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With environmental degradation on the rise it can feel that there is little that brands can do to minimise this. Yet JOSEFIN LILJEQVIST is a brand trying to reimagine traditional leather supply chains to address how humans, nature and animals can live together in balance; in ecological harmony. “The world does not need another fashion house. The world needs and deserves us thinking twice and creating design with integrity, intelligence and beauty.” This is how Josefin Liljeqvist sees the rapidly expanding world of fashion, the 2nd most polluting industry in the world. Founded in 2015, the mission of fashion-tech brand JOSEFIN LILJEQVIST is to focus on improving brand sustainability by focussing on the protection of animals and the environment; seeing animals as a much-needed part of the eco-system. “Our mission is to improve global animal protection using impact, fashion and tech. we believe that the only way to make this mission globally is to reward good animal welfare, add traceability and this will allow to decrease the amount of animals living within industrial farming by increasing their quality of life. This is why we started to develop our own technology to help support this mission.” By 2018 their leather and production lines were 100% traceable without compromising quality or design. 

Having studied to become a footwear designer, Josefin maintains her production methods to the high quality of traditional shoemaking. In doing this, she has created a complex shoe that requires multiple components; The Upper, Lining, Reinforcement Leathers, Heelcounter, Clean Insock, Insole, Welt, Heel and Sole. All of these are traceable and have been uniquely sourced. In discussing this complex method, Josefin explains that “in some areas we use two leathers, due to the quality and tanning methods used, and the required weights and ages of the hides.” Such complex efforts towards sustainability can take years to finalise. Josefin has worked for many years to form relationships with the ISO-certified tannery Tärnsjö Garveri. Her relationship began with them during the period of her studies to become a footwear designer. She had set herself with a problem to solve; to explore the different standards of animal welfare within the leather industry. During this period, she contacted Tärnsjö Garveri to ask for their help and landed an internship with them. As her career led her to “build my own brand with a keen focus on animal welfare, they were my natural first call.”

Despite her traditional past, Josefin noticed how the distinct lack of animal welfare legislation in the UN Global Goals did not seem to reflect increased consumer awareness and desires to protect animals. Furthermore, in an attempt to address the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative, Josefin targeted the increased customer demand for transparency in order to create a connection between consumer and their purchase. She decided to reimagine her product’s supply chain, to reinvent the way that leather is produced in a way that values and recognises the animal that is central to it. Instead of seeing leather production as its own entity, Josefin has worked to bring back the old notion of using every ounce of the animal; so that each production step makes the most of the animal’s life and puts the animal into the conversation. In order to do this, she has focussed on the medium of Storytelling as a way to engage her clients and to educate them on the journey of her shoes, from source to end point. “We always focus on the story coming from the animal in our leather goods. We build our designs on top of their legacy and focus on how this can make the world better.” In creating this connection, she is making the story of a pair of shoes live on and believes that “immortality is the highest level of sustainability.” She thinks that a priority in this often-misguiding industry, is honesty, authenticity and rawness, so that consumers can see the direct impact that their purchase is having. 

In order to efficiently and transparently do this, all shoes are given a unique six-digit code which is fully traceable. Much like a cow’s ID number, they give the consumer a full history of the product. This code allows customers to access a goldmine of information, highlighting the multiple facets involved in production; from farm to tannery, cow to slaughterhouse and all of the steps in between. The process of logging into the database is actively encouraged by Josefin as she believes that relating an item to the harsh realities of death prevents the sense of detachment that often accompanies receiving a garment. Whilst the software is still under development, the emphasis on kindness and connection to the animal is something that is increasingly important to Josefin. The ultimate aim of this database will be to find “a new price model for industrial farming; one that economically rewards animal protection and decreases the number of animals living in traditional farming environments.” The technology and nudge that this change in behaviour can give “will be key in leading this shift and movement (towards true sustainability).”

Yet we cannot shy away from the issues surrounding cattle farming. In 2009, the Greenpeace report, Slaughtering the Amazon made a direct connection between leather production and environmental degradation. The fashion industry relies heavily on leather production. 290million cows are killed every year, and this is expected to increase to 430million annually by 2025, numbers that the earth might struggle to sustain. The global leather goods business is worth over $100 billion a year, with leather being unique for its strength and stretch (a material that has been used for 1000s of years for footwear). The leather production industry, being based in the raising and slaughtering of billions of animals every year, is not only inefficient and cruel but can come with a huge environmental impact. It contributes to climate change, land devastation and water contamination and it is the 3rd most polluting industry in the world. 

There have been technological advances to move beyond the use of natural resources, using creativity to look towards alternatives. One of the pioneers of this ‘new wave’ of materials is Modern Meadow, a Texas based start-up that has managed to bio-fabricate ‘leather’ without the use of animals. It relies on re-creating the central component of leather, collagen to emulate the desired traits of strength and stretch. To do this it uses a sustainable fermentation process to ‘brew’ collagen directly in batches leaving a low environmental footprint and a more reliable product. Their motto is based around “animal products without the animal” to remove the environmental and ethical downfalls of the leather industry. Traditional leather supply chains are long and difficult to manage with price volatility, there is often high waste due to damaged skins not being suitable for the high-quality standards required for luxury clothing. By creating this vegan leather product, the manufacturer is able to dictate exactly the material produced. 

Despite these steps towards the creation of vegan leather alternatives becoming more sustainable and efficient in their production than leather, Josefin thinks that we need to go beyond the vegan vs non-vegan leather debate. She believes that it is more important to fully understand an age-old production process to come up with sustainable solutions, something that she believes can be achieved with a traditional leather product. In reimagining the supply chain she is able to focus on efficient hide use and making the most of every cow killed, even those slaughtered for meat. Both the lab created leather products and those with a fully traceable past have a high price point yet both Josefin and Modern Meadow believe that price competition is of little importance when positioned against the potential for environmental disaster. Both encourage product uniqueness in order to encourage efficiency in the market. In discussing the high price tag of 28,000 SEK (appro 2,500 Euro), Josefin highlights the quality and care that has gone into the production of her shoes. “What I don´t think the public understands is the level or perfection you need to work on in order to create traceable leather shoes that have the same quality, craftsmanship and components as an identical non-traceable shoe.

Each component has a specific leather, tanning method, animal age and weight required to create that exact leather, and you need to know all of this before tanning, so you can get the best product in production that lives up to the quality we desire to offer.” It is the combination of artisan shoemaking and technological advances that give JOSEFIN LILJEQVIST its luxury price bracket. “Our price range reflects our focus of perfection. Normally in our price range the focus is perfection- It is about creating perfect, flawless leather without stretchmarks and scars.” Even though a major focus of theirs is highlighting the story of a “life well lived”, JOSEFIN LILJEQVIST still has “to think about placements, quality of leathers and how we can use leather.” Their designs walk a fine line between sustainability and quality, which inevitably comes at a higher price. Josefin believes that “the price should be a reflection of integrity, intelligence and innovation where the product should lead the pricing.”

Instead of jumping towards the use of innovative new materials, we have seen how JOSEFIN LILJEQVIST have used traditional methods and materials to create a classic luxury product yet have turned their production supply chains completely on its head to become more environmentally conscious. Whilst this has a high price tag, the road towards full sustainability does have its potential drawbacks, Josefin believes that sustainable growth is something that can be achieved by other companies. As these waves are being made in the fashion industry, it will be interesting to see if innovative supple chains can be emulated by other industries as we progress towards environmental change.