Repurposing Leather & Preserving Tradition

The Pillars

Zero Lab is a Florence-based leather waste incubator that connects tanneries, factories and luxury brands with local artisans and makers who aim to create a circular economy for leather. Zero Lab founder Cassandra Kane speaks to Ample about her journey.

Hi Cassandra; thanks for joining us to discuss your company Zero Lab.

First off, let's jump into some quick-fire questions.

If you weren't in fashion, you'd be… a UX designer. I am fascinated by how design impacts behaviours and interactions within digital spaces. Or maybe a materials scientist. I wish I had understood the implications of bio-based materials for fashion when I was in chemistry class in high school!

Your career role model is… Eileen Fisher. I truly admire the brand she has built and how she has been able to transform and evolve her business over the years to align with her values and become a role model in terms of circularity and authenticity in the fashion industry

The best advice you ever received is… ‍If you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room.

You feel most inspired and creative when… ‍‍When I am walking the streets in Florence! This city gives me creative energy unlike any other!

Your favourite app is… Deepl, language translator. Because of the very technical and beaurocratic work we do at Zerolab, I constantly need to translate laws and reports!

The last piece you bought  Sneakers from a new female-founded brand Alfena. I love the classic look, and the best part is that they are composed of cork, vegetable leather, cotton and tencel, so they are biodegradable and 100% made in Spain and Portugal.  

The fashion item you couldn't live without is… My red leather jacket.

In 5 years, you'll be… ‍repurposing hundreds of tons of leather waste with Sieme and Zero Lab and collaborating directly with big brands to reduce and reimagine material waste.

Can you tell us how Zero Lab came about?

I came to Italy about 5 years ago after working in fashion as a designer. I wanted to pivot to handbags and work in leather goods. I intended to be here for a year to do a professional programme and then return to New York. I ended up loving it, stayed, and found a job at a sample-making house and small factory. I started to see how much leather we were throwing away — that was my Aha! Moment.

Leather waste is categorised as industrial waste, making it really hard to take out of that system, bureaucratically speaking. It started me on a path to collecting this waste and making beautiful handbags. It was important to me that they don't look upcycled, celebrate the history of Italian artistry, and design into the excess. So I built a brand around this from the ground up, and I quickly realised that we needed infrastructure to support collecting all of that material in order to be able to scale it in a way beyond me going door to door and asking people for their waste.

Scandicci, where we are, is one of Italy's big hubs for leather handbag production. Gucci, Fendi and Balenciaga all have their headquarters in the area. It was always very strange to me that we're in Florence, a city that for centuries has celebrated artisanal craft, and there are no design incubator spaces that you might see in London, New York or Paris. There are art and ceramic studios, but it needed something else on a professional level to share resources in a shared space. I told my partner about that idea, along with trying to solve the leather waste, and over the pandemic, this idea has evolved into ZeroLab, which we opened in June.

What are you working on at Zero Lab?

It's an artisan co-working space that has a fully functional machine lab for leather accessories and soon for shoes. We have traditional co-working, a photo studio, storage, and logistics support, and we also take in leather. We work with brands and local factories to take in their excess leather and repurpose it. We sell online and in person, and connect small brands with factories with excess leather. We're looking into how we can reduce waste while working within the regulation and create new ways of working in the production system to support small brands.

Can you tell us more about the leather waste you're working with?

Up to 60% of leather is typically discarded during production because of quality issues. So just in Tuscany, that's over 260 tonnes a year. There is no silver bullet or easy solution that can magically make all of this into a new product that is equally as valuable.

The overstock and the rolls of leather are easy to resell, there has always been a market for that. For us, it's about getting it online and connecting people to it. It comes mainly from the tanneries and sometimes from the factories in huge 200kg boxes. We have to go through them and cut them into usable shapes.

Right now, most leather waste is incinerated or goes to landfill. A small part of it can be used for fertiliser; however, the downside is that the tannery has to pay the fertiliser company to do this so there's no incentive. Either way, they're taking a material that sells for €60/square meter, and now all of a sudden, for a kilogram of waste, it's probably worth €1 or less. We won't be able to get leather waste to zero, but we aim to repurpose about 70% of this waste in a higher-end way before it ends up as fertiliser.

How is Zero Lab supporting the future of artisan handcrafts?

Collaboration is what gets us excited! Many small businesses aren't interested in buying new leather and want to use leather waste. It's tough as an individual to set up a brand. We offer co-working packages where people can belong to the space; they can use the workbenches to realise their products and utilise the industrial machines to produce handbags and shoes. We have a sample maker who comes one day a week to help anyone who might have questions about what they're doing.

We also connect brands and manufacturers for people who are not interested in making things themselves. For example, a childrenswear brand might want to make a bag but don't have the network or experience, so we will connect them with local consultants, designers, sample makers, and factories to produce for them. Production is a big challenge here for smaller brands because few factories will do sampling. So we're trying to fill that void with a lens towards circularity.

What role do you think bovine leather has in the future of the fashion industry?

I don't think it's going anywhere because meat consumption globally continues to rise. Last year in the U.S., 5 million hides were burned or buried because there was no market for them.

Leather is a byproduct, but we still need to respect and utilise it as much as possible by keeping it out of landfills. We do need to drastically reduce the amount of meat we eat and leather goods we make. You can't make 40,000 bags a month and be sustainable or artisanal - it's the definition of industrialisation.

Interesting things are happening in terms of material tracing that could move the meat industry forward. The push will probably come from the high-end luxury industry, which wants to know where the hide comes from and how the animals are treated.  

What's next for Zero Lab?

We want to be Italy's leading sustainable and circular design incubator for accessories. There is promise in our development and the potential to collaborate with bigger brands.

On our side, we want to continue helping brands utilise their excess materials. We have a photo studio and offer social media, marketing, and e-commerce services; we want to expand our network and services for smaller brands to support them further.