The Ethical Wardrobe: Why Leather Is Now Under Scrutiny

With brands leaning into material innovations and manufacturing practices to reduce their environmental impact, leather sourcing may be the next frontier in the consciousness revolution.Outdoor brands such as Keen have long been part of the conversation about environmental conservancy, touting relationships with ethics programs like Leave No Trace and the Conservation Alliance that help preserve public lands. And over the past five years, the brand has been on a “detox journey” to clean up production practices that might harm the environment, said Kirk Richardson, the brand’s sustainability expert.

Working with third-party tannery auditing bodies such as the London-based Leather Working Group has helped, said Keen’s corporate responsibility head, Chris Enlow. “They have a very strict audit process, and their focus is on eliminating the discharge of hazardous chemicals into the water or the air,” he said. “They’re also focused on the recycling of water and on energy usage. … So we can step back and proudly say, ‘We process 100 percent of our leathers through environmentally preferred tanneries.’”

Those tanneries pull much of their raw leather from the United States. According to Richardson, the U.S. is the largest provider of leather hides to the footwear industry, with 70 percent of the world’s hides originating here. That’s because “we’re by far the biggest consumers of beef and have the biggest industrial ranches.”

When it comes to the leathers being used in their products, Richardson said sourcing hides from massive beef breeders like Tyson Foods has practical implications as well as environmental ones.

“Whether or not we like the mass production of beef, the hides don’t have disease or fly bites,” he said, adding that North American farms are preferable to those elsewhere in the world. “You get more utilization out of each hide because the animals are managed much better.” He pointed to cattle farming operations in South America that produce bug-bitten skins that are ultimately less salable. Leathers from the U.S. “don’t have the insect damage that you might see on a hide that came from the rainforest of the Amazon.”

Then there’s the issue of the thickness, or “durometer,” of the leather, added Enlow. Keen looks for hides that are 2.5 millimeters thick for its hiking products, which are built to withstand the elements and take a beating. Healthy, well-managed cattle like those raised in the central and southern U.S. produce stronger hides, he said. “We pay a premium for a more durable material.”

The combination of environmental ethics and quality are driving forces behind Nisolo’s leather sourcing decisions, too, according to Matt Stockamp, the brand’s impact expert. The Nashville, Tenn.-based startup sources leather from the U.S. and Mexico for its factories in Peru and, like Keen, works with the Leather Working Group’s member tanneries to ensure that chemical runoff doesn’t damage the surrounding water sources or ecology.

“Sustainability has been at the core of the brand since we started in 2011,” said Stockamp, adding that Nisolo’s ethical considerations “started more on the social impact side before getting into the environmental side.” The brand’s factory in Trujillo, Peru, employ more than 100 people who make “two to three times as much as workers are making in China and Vietnam,” according to Stockamp. “We’re very much invested in the communities we’re sourcing from.”

When it comes to sustainability, Stockamp said, “leather certainly has its challenges.” Like Richardson, he points to issues of deforestation, “particularly in Brazil and other countries where parts of the Amazon rainforest have been uprooted for the sake of large farms for meat and leather, as well.” In addition to sourcing many of hides from U.S. beef manufacturers to avoid pulling from an ethically compromised source like the Amazon, Nisolo is also contributing to conservation projects that benefit the area’s forests.

Nisolo, according to Stockamp, is working to get 100 percent visibility into its supply chain, and that means examining issues of leather sourcing. Stockamp admits that it’s an area that deserves a closer look.

“We visit our factories and tanneries, and are hoping at some point to visit the farms, as well,” he said. Even if there’s more work to be done, he said, consumers value the brand’s transparency. “Our consumers respond well when we fully admit where we are on something, when we say, ‘This is an area where we want to improve,’” Stockamp said.

“We’re very early on in the ethical fashion movement, and we have a very exciting 10 to 20 years ahead, especially as people get more educated,” he added.

Keen’s Enlow takes a more hardline stance on the industry’s progress.

“We’re living in the 20th century in terms of manufacturing. It’s definitely not the 20th century anymore, and collectively, there needs to be a shift,” he said. “We as an industry are still stuck in this paradigm, and we’re trying to force ourselves into the 21st century by making things more safe, effective and affordable.” That means taking a fresh look at environmental impact and sustainability, he said.

Editor’s Note: This story was reported by FN’s sister magazine Sourcing Journal. For more, visit Sourcingjournal.com.

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