Footwear | Ethical Leather


Advances in Leather are Giving the Category New Shape.

By Suzanne Blecher. With consumers becoming more socially aware of the materials in their footwear, companies are presenting new options for brands to accommodate. At OluKai, “we work exclusively with ISO-certified tanneries who ensure their leather is sustainably sourced and dispose of all tanning by-product by treating the water to ensure no chemicals enter the groundwater,” says Kerry Konrady, VP of marketing for OluKai.

Believing that quality and sustainability go hand-in-hand, OluKai’s team chooses leathers that have high character, durability and tactile qualities, regardless of where they are sourced. “Warm tones, organic textures and smooth finishes- carefully chosen to be soft against your skin,” the exec says. Laser-etched Polynesian tattoo artwork in leathers help tell stories, as do stitched leathers that mimic lashing details of an outrigger canoe, symbolizing details from the brand’s Hawaiian culture, she explained.

OluKai’s design team “loves working with domestic leathers because the closer we can get to the source, the more easily we can trace its roots – to the fields, the farmers, the tanneries,” says Konrady.

Transparent Tannery

ISA TanTec, which counts OluKai, Timberland, Wolverine, Danner, Rockport and The North Face as clients, has a trademarked manufacturing process for producing leather called LITE (Low Impact to the Environment). The concept is about reducing the amount of water, energy and emissions used in making leather. For example, wind power is used to pump rainwater from a lagoon into the production process, saving 5,189 kwh per year and reducing 4,006 kg CO2 emission. In March 2018, ISA TanTec announced that the firm had signed definitive agreements to acquire the Auburn Leather brand (based in Kentucky), business and assets.

“Traditionally, leather making has had a bad reputation for being ‘polluters.’ We do everything we can to change that viewpoint,” says Ronda de Bie, director of sales and product management for ISA TanTec. The firm has tanneries in Kentucky and Mississippi. According to de Bie, transportation time, cost and impact of using hides procured from the USA in its local tannery are benefits to brands.

ISA TanTec has the ability to communicate to its customers the amount of water and energy used to produce each individual leather type.  “Brands can choose leathers for their end products based on the savings it will have,” comments the exec. The firm’s family of Saline Solution salt-repellent leather is one of its most popular at the moment.

Artificial Approach

Zoa is a biofabricated material from Modern Meadow which mimics the qualities of leather, yet using a completely animal-free process. The firm designs, grows and assembles collagen from yeast. Over about two weeks, experts at Modern Meadow (they have pros in molecular biology, material science, engineering and design; as well as a joint development partnership with Evonik, the chemicals firm) assemble a network of fibers and tan them to create leather-like materials that have different levels of strength and weight. They can also take on unique textures and forms, and in the future, will offer new performance and aesthetic properties.

Modern Meadow is eyeing the luxury space, with plans to launch product with a partner in the next year or so. In October 2017, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC showcased a graphic t-shirt with variety of fabrics bound together by a liquid form of Zoa. There are no stitches in the shirt, as the seams are the material itself.

While Modern Meadow’s process is still in development, the firm anticipates having advantages over livestock production in terms of land, water usage and carbon dioxide emissions.

Tried & True

While the leather industry has never really been keen on marketing its services as a whole, Dr. Michael Redwood is doing his best to “change attitudes towards promoting leather and find routes for larger funds” as spokesperson for the organization Leather Naturally.

“The more we look at leather, the more we believe it to be the most sustainable material,” says Redwood. One reason being that it is a by-product of the meat and dairy industry. “As long as we eat meat and drink milk, we will have hides and skins for which there is no other volume use (small amounts are used in gelatin and cosmetics),” he says. Furthermore, leather no longer uses arsenic and while it does use chromium, it is equivalent in form to what some people would take in a daily tablet, he noted.

Leather has the history to back it up and its durability is unmatched. While Redwood is intrigued by the new materials popping up, he is skeptical when it comes to some of their lofty claims. “The chemistry they have is very clever, but we have no evidence yet that they have the architecture of leather – that incredible three-dimensional fiber network that makes leather so special. We wait to see,” he concludes.

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