20 June 2019

How to scale a circular supply chain

Eco-leather brand Deadwood makes its clothes using scrap leather. How can it scale such a niche supply chain?

When friends Felix von Bahder and Carl Ollsen opened their Stockholm clothing store nearly 10 years ago, they had no plans of later setting up an ecofriendly leather brand.

‘We couldn’t find a good-fitting leather jacket we wanted to sell; the new ones lacked beautiful leather, while the vintage [ones weren’t] fashionable enough,’ von Bahder says. The pair came up with a hybrid solution, taking leather from several old jackets and upcycling into a modern piece.

It was a one-off – but customers asked for more. Von Bahder and Ollsen had a convoluted method of keeping up with demand – taking trips to Thailand’s vintage markets, which carry an abundance of cheap leather coats, and cutting and hand assembling into jackets at a workshop near Bangkok’s Chatuchak market.

Rethinking the supply chain

It was a process that worked when they were only making 10 or so jackets a month. But by 2012, when the jackets had become so popular that they had closed the shop to focus solely on making leather goods, the founders needed a new way to get their hands on quality leather.

Rather than finding a supplier that could sell new leather to them in bulk, the Deadwood founders preferred the look and feel of recycled leather, which ‘adds character to the garments,’ von Bahder says.

So they started looking for scraps. The fashion industry is notoriously wasteful, and von Bahder knew that there was a lot of good leather getting thrown away – it’s estimated that around 290 million cows are killed each year for their hides, but up to 40% of those skins end up as waste.

‘I picked up the phone and called some manufacturers in the industry. After some hesitation, they admitted what I had heard was correct. It’s a very inefficient industry in terms of waste,’ he explains. By buying waste skins, von Bader reckons Deadwood spends 30% less on material than if it was buying new leather.

The brand moved production to India, where there is a thriving leather industry (the country produces 13% of the world’s leather), and made contacts to help them source waste leather from local factories.

A world of waste

Deadwood has also identified multiple sources of leftover leather to ensure their supply doesn’t dry up. Its jackets and accessories are now made from an patchwork of rescued deadstock skins, repurposed vintage clothing and postproduction waste.

‘It’s an easy and logical way to scale because the waste is just there. It’s going unused otherwise, and there’s a whole world [of potential suppliers] we haven’t even tapped into yet,’ von Bahder adds, saying that Deadwood is also looking closer to home for ready and available sources.

The brand has found that furniture and car manufacturers are also willing to donate offcuts – seeing the PR benefits of helping out a brand that recycles waste materials – and Deadwood is currently in talks with other companies in the hopes of finding even more suppliers.

Trash cash: five brands turning waste materials into new products

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has led to the US city being inundated with plastic
bottles. Genusee is taking that waste and turning it into a line of sustainable eyewear. Each pair of glasses is made from 15 recycled water bottles.

Riz Boardshorts

Made from 100% recycled fabric, board shorts from this London-based surf company can be returned when worn out for a discount on a new pair. The company recycles the returned shorts into new pairs.

Girlfriend Collective

A Californian athleisure company launched in 2016 which makes t-shirts from cupro (a fabric made from textile industry byproducts), body suits from fishing nets and sports bras from plastic bottles.

Green Toys

This US toy company makes all of its products from 100% recycled plastic and environmentally friendly materials. Its line of kids toys include a play pizza parlour and a salad set, made from milk jugs and yogurt pots.

For Days

A t-shirts subscription company where customers pay for up to 10 t-shirts, which they can return for a ‘refresh’ at any time. Like Riz Boardshorts, the old t-shirts are recycled and turned into new pieces.

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