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Can Leather Be Sustainable?

 

Questions around the sustainability of leather are currently Googled 10x more per month than questions regarding the sustainability of materials such as plastic (Source: Google Ads, Keyword Planner, 2022).

And, we understand why. Unlike virgin plastic which is almost never a sustainable option, the answer to whether or not leather is sustainable depends on many factors.

Our goal in this article is to address the question of leather as a viable, sustainable material as simply as possible while ensuring you have enough context and data to understand the full picture.

 

Raw Materials & Why They Matter

To understand leather’s sustainability, let’s look at why raw materials like leather matter so much in the first place…

What are raw materials you might ask? Raw materials are the primary substance used in the manufacturing of goods. Think wood for a desk or cotton for a t-shirt.

You’re probably already aware that fashion is one of the worst contributors to climate change, responsible for more emissions than the international aviation and maritime shipping industries combined (Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017). What you might not know is that part of the reason this situation has gotten so bad lies in the fast fashion industry’s irresponsible use of raw materials, which negatively impact the environment through their extraction, manufacturing, and detrimental post-use product lifecycle.

 

The Environmental Impacts of Raw Materials

As much as 90% of a product’s environmental impact is decided during the design phase, which means that the materials brands choose to work with are critically important. Here are four ways in which poorly selected materials are creating negative outcomes for our planet.

1. DEPLETION OF NON-RENEWABLE RESOURCES
With the rise of fast fashion in the 1990s, our clothes became cheaper and more disposable than ever before, thanks to materials like polyester (first introduced in 1951). Polyester now makes up 52% of clothing produced globally, which is troubling considering that it’s derived from fossil fuels (Source: Textile Exchange, 2020).

In fact, 63% of all textile fibers are derived from petrochemicals extracted by the oil industry (Source: Journal of Cleaner Production, 2018). And that figure is growing. The fashion industry is projected to use 35% more land for fiber and textile production by 2030. That’s an extra 115 million hectares that should be left alone to help preserve biodiversity (Source: Global Fashion Agenda, 2017).

2. DEFORESTATION
Our forests are being cut down to create space for more cotton farming and cattle grazing (supplying for leather), as well as to create wood-based fabrics and other raw materials—which is unfortunate because forests are vital for biodiversity. They also act as a carbon sponge, holding onto carbon dioxide instead of setting it free into our atmosphere. When we clear forests, we release all that previously contained carbon (Source: Fashion Revolution, 2020).

3. WATER POLLUTION
From a manufacturing standpoint, the fashion industry relies heavily on natural resources, like water, and hazardous chemicals to process raw materials into finished products.

“Freshwater is a highly limited commodity and its supply is diminishing. A full two thirds of the world’s population are projected to face water scarcity by 2025, according to the UN. This is not because water molecules are disappearing; it’s because existing freshwater is getting polluted, rendering it unsafe for human consumption, and the chemicals from our clothing contribute to this water crisis.” (Source: Bédat, 2021).

As much as 20% of industrial water pollution comes from washing, solvents and dyes (Source: Mckinsey, 2020). If the water and chemical waste from making our clothes isn’t treated, it runs off into natural waterways and creates serious health problems for nearby communities and the planet at large (Source: The True Cost, 2015).

Even the microplastics from our clothing are winding up in rivers and oceans, polluting marine ecosystems at alarming rates. Fashion actually accounts for 20 to 35% of all microplastic flow into the ocean (Source: Mckinsey, 2020).

4. UNNECESSARY OVERFLOWING LANDFILLS
The chemical makeup of raw materials determines whether and how a product will biodegrade. Unfortunately, 85% of the clothes and shoes we wear currently end up in landfills, even though 95% of the items could be reused or recycled (Source: Council for Textile Recycling, 2021). Once in the landfill, the items continue to emit greenhouse gasses until they decompose, which, for plastic-based raw materials (e.g., the majority of our clothing) the process can take centuries.

 

If our use of raw materials is so harmful, then what's the solution?

The best thing to do is reduce consumption. One of the keys to transforming fashion is buying less, so the volume of clothing being produced goes down. Even as a product-based business, we agree that the most sustainable clothes and shoes are the ones we already have in our closets.

That said, when we do go out and purchase things to add to our wardrobe, it’s important that we select higher-quality materials so the product will last longer. Investing in fewer, better pieces is a good rule of thumb. As consumers, we should only purchase things that we plan to hold onto for years instead of opting for cheaply made items that fall apart and need to be replaced often. Even though you might spend more on the former, the latter comes out to be a similar cost per wear.

The most important practice that can transform the industry is the reduction of consumption, but when we do buy, it’s essential to purchase products made with the most sustainable raw materials available.

Which raises the question, “What determines whether or not a raw material is sustainable?”

 

Sustainable Raw Materials

Determining a product or raw material’s sustainability is, of course, not a black and white matter. There are a variety of factors to consider, including the following questions and criteria:

  • Integrity: What is the makeup of the material? Is it fossil fuel-based or natural? Is it made from recycled or virgin materials?
  • Land impacts: What impact does the creation of this raw material have on the physical environment? How does extracting this raw material affect biodiversity? Does it contribute to deforestation?
  • Durability: How long will this raw material last? What is the cost per wear?
  • Carbon footprint per use: How carbon-intensive is it to make this raw material? What are the CO2 emissions per wear?
  • Care: How does caring for this raw material (e.g., washing, drying, maintenance, etc.) impact the planet?
  • Animal welfare: If applicable to the raw material, how are the animals in the supply chain treated? Is it a byproduct or coproduct of another industry?
  • Processing and manufacturing: What natural resources are used in converting this raw material into a finished product? What chemicals are used? How are they managed to protect the environment?
  • Post-use product lifecycle: Is this raw material repairable? If it isn’t, how should it be disposed of? Is it upcyclable, recyclable, biodegradable or compostable?

Raw Material Options for Footwear and Accessories

As a brand focused on sustainability, we’re always trying to find the best raw materials to use for our products. This spring, we are launching our first vegan offering, featuring a sustainable, recycled material, but the vast majority of our products are made with leather. We’d like to share with you how we ended up working with leather in the first place, why we still work with leather today and what we look forward to in the future.


HOW WE STARTED WORKING WITH LEATHER
When we started Nisolo in 2011, we did not begin as a leather footwear and accessories company. Rather, our brand was launched as a means to positively impact a community of shoemakers in Peru who worked with leather and lacked access to the global market. We had reservations about the use of leather, in large part, because we did not know a lot about its environmental impact and how it compared to other raw material options.

OUR SEARCH FOR LEATHER ALTERNATIVES
One of our company’s core values is to “continuously improve.” It’s a mindset that affects our decision-making at every level of the business. Naturally, we applied this to our use of leather as a primary raw material, and several years ago, this led to one of the most expensive external consulting projects we’ve ever done.

The objective of the project was to assess every raw material option for our products in order to find something more sustainable than conventional leather. Our consultants scoured suppliers and innovators from all over the world, but we were disheartened by the global market’s offering of leather alternatives. Here’s why:

  • Alternative materials marketed as “sustainable” still had significantly negative environmental impacts. While they appeared to be “plant-based” or “green” at face value, when we dug a little deeper, we found that a large percentage of the materials were made with virgin plastic. It turned out that a lot of “vegan” options were just sophisticated greenwashing.
  • Alternatives that met our product aesthetic did not hold up from a durability perspective. We tinkered with pineapple and cactus leather, plus a variety of other natural options, but none of them held up like conventional leather. We decided not to compromise on durability, given its significant environmental advantages.
  • Next-generation leathers (e.g., mushroom leather, lab-grown leather, etc.) either didn’t work well for footwear or had a pay-to-play model. For instance, it would have cost us $1M to get a run of mushroom leather. As a small, under-resourced brand, we do not have the capital to work with these materials at scale. That said, we continue to evaluate new options, and we hope next-generation leathers will be more accessible in the future.

WHERE WE STAND WITH LEATHER TODAY
When used irresponsibly, leather can be harmful to the environment, contributing to deforestation, lack of biodiversity, abuse of animals and the pollution of ecosystems. With that said, we’ve spent a decade trying to understand leather on a more holistic level, and along this journey, we’ve come to embrace leather as one of the more sustainable options available for high-quality, durable footwear and accessories when it’s made and processed responsibly.

 

Four Aspects That Make Leather Sustainable

Leather can be problematic, but if it’s managed responsibly across the supply chain, it is a sustainable option for four primary reasons.

1. INTEGRITY | Economically, a byproduct of the meat industry.

By definition, byproduct means “an incidental or secondary product made in the manufacturing or synthesis of something else. While perspectives may differ whether or not leather is a byproduct of the meat industry, as 97.7% of the economic value of a cow is derived from non-leather components and 2.3% of the economic value comes from the hide, at least from an economic standpoint, leather is clearly a byproduct of the meat industry, (Source: United States Department of Agriculture, 2020).

Leather often gets a bad wrap in relation to carbon emissions, but important to take into consideration is the that beef and cattle account for an estimated 2% of total annual carbon emissions in the US. With hides driving 2.3% of the demand in the beef industry, this leaves cowhides themselves, from an economics perspective, responsible for 0.05% of annual carbon emissions—meaning if the leather industry did not exist, there would unlikely be a significant reduction in US carbon emissions.

Perhaps more importantly, if cowhides were not repurposed into leather, an estimated 33,000,000 would be added to landfills EVERY YEAR, potentially causing net new, devastating social and environmental challenges (Source: Leather Hide Council of America, 2019).

2. DURABILITY | Its low carbon footprint per use.

Second, leather is durable, repairable, recyclable for new products, and not as care-intensive as apparel. Although it releases more CO2 emissions to procure and manufacture compared to other raw materials, its durability ensures that it won’t get quickly replaced or disposed of.

It can be argued that a pair of leather shoes create less total CO2 emissions per use than a pair of shoes made from another less durable material that needs to be replaced multiple times to achieve the same lifespan. Durability plays a critical role in reducing carbon emissions since “wearing a garment twice as long would lower greenhouse gas emissions from clothing by 44%.” (Bédat, 2021).

3. MANUFACTURING | Ethical tanning options.

Third, leather can be manufactured in an environmentally and socially responsible manner with third-party accountability to protect against ecosystem pollution.

The Leather Working Group (LWG) has developed the world’s leading environmental certification for leather manufacturing. They conduct intensive audits of leather manufacturers and assess every aspect of their operations.

4. BIODEGRADABILITY | Compared to alternatives.

Lastly, leather takes a shorter time to biodegrade compared to most synthetic alternatives. Natural leather can take up to 50 years to biodegrade, depending on how it was tanned, but synthetic materials can take up to 200 years. The vast majority of synthetic leather is essentially plastic as well, meaning it’s made from fossil fuels and has a shorter lifespan than natural leather.

 

How We Work With Leather Today & Our Plans for the Future

As you can see, in order to assess a product’s impact on the environment, it’s critical to do so in a holistic and comprehensive manner that takes into consideration the full lifecycle of a product.

Similar to how we’ve laid out our Sustainability Facts Label, we assess five core areas of our leather goods: Carbon Footprint, Raw Materials Integrity & Durability, Processing & Manufacturing, Packaging & Distribution, and Circularity & Post-Use Product Lifecycle.

Let’s unpack what we do at each stage to ensure a responsible approach to working with leather as a raw material.

1. CARBON FOOTPRINT

We recognize that every leather product we make has an impact on the planet, which is why we measure, strive to reduce, and ensure we offset 100% of our Scopes 1, 2 and 3 emissions as a Climate Neutral Certified brand.

How We Maintain Climate Neutrality
We assess our product’s carbon emissions using raw materials weight data collected from our Tier 1 suppliers that we inputted into the 2030 Calculator by Doconomy, a technology platform powered by emissions data from Ecoinvent, “the world’s most consistent and transparent life cycle inventory database supporting environmental assessments of products and processes worldwide.”

Climate Neutral ensures that we are accurately measuring and offsetting 100% of these emissions by requiring us to measure our emissions on their software tool, the Brand Emissions Estimator (BEE), a comprehensive platform built in partnership with climate experts from well-respected organizations–Massachusetts Institute of Technology and CIRAIG, among others–operating in the carbon emissions accounting and lifecycle analysis fields (see their complete methodology here).

To certify, we share financial information and specific emissions data (e.g., total ton-miles shipped, kilowatts of energy consumed, therms of natural gas used, amount of leather hides purchased, etc.) into the BEE to arrive at an accurate estimate of our total carbon emissions.

An analyst from Climate Neutral works directly with our Sustainability Lead to ensure there are no discrepancies in the data, supports us with creating and implementing reduction plans to actually reduce our carbon footprint moving forward, and verifies that 100% of our CO2 emissions are offset annually through a REDD+ project in the Peruvian Amazon that has been certified through the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS).

Conservation
While leather has been found to be notorious for contributing to deforestation in the Amazon, we do not source any leather from the region and instead have been active in conserving its biodiversity since 2018. You can learn more about the conservation work we support here.

 

 

2. RAW MATERIALS INTEGRITY & DURABILITY

One-hundred percent of our leather is cow leather and a byproduct of the meat industry.

We design our products to be durable, and we do not use any oil-based materials or synthetics like polyester in our primary raw materials.

We are committed to never using plastic or fossil fuel-based materials unless they are 100% recycled and recyclable at the end of their life.

We are committed to further evaluating our farms’ animal welfare policies and practices and will use our influence to support best animal husbandry practices.

We have a strict commitment to never use exotic skins (e.g., ostrich, crocodile, kangaroo, elephant, lizard, snake, etc.), wool, down, angora, or fur for our products due to the historic animal rights abuses of these industries.

We are committed to ensuring the well-being of the cattle within our supply chain and that the Five Freedoms are met within our supply chain:

      1. Freedom to express natural behavior
      2. Freedom from injury and disease
      3. Freedom from discomfort
      4. Freedom from thirst and hunger
      5. Freedom from fear and distress

Our Leathers’ Origins
We are working in collaboration with our tanneries to map 100% of our leathers back to the farm level. As of today, we can map approximately 25% of our leathers back to the exact farm of origin. With that said, we still have a long way to go on this front. Our Tier 2 suppliers have guaranteed that no deforestation is occurring within our supply chain.

While we are still learning more about the base of our supply chain in our pursuit to obtain a comprehensive list of Tier 4 suppliers, we know that our leather comes from US (primarily Kansas & Nebraska) and Mexico and includes the following organizations whose facilities are located in the American Midwest: JBS, Cargill, and National Beef. You can learn more about these farms and their animal welfare policies at their respective links. Here is a snapshot of our farms’ animal welfare commitments:

"Ensuring the well-being of the livestock under our care is an uncompromising commitment at JBS USA. We continually strive to improve our welfare efforts through new technologies and the implementation of standards that meet and often exceed regulatory requirements and industry guidelines...The welfare of livestock in our production facilities is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)." - JBS USA

"Cargill is unwavering in our belief that the humane treatment of animals is the right thing to do. We are proud to be recognized as an industry leader in animal welfare innovation and to partner with others to continually improve animal welfare practices." - Cargill

 

 

3. PROCESSING & MANUFACTURING

We have complete visibility of Tiers 1 and 2 across all of our products’ primary raw materials and are beginning to achieve visibility of Tiers 3 and 4. Over the past 18 months, we have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to completely rework Tier 2 of our supply chain in order to source from tanneries that prioritize environmental responsibility.

The majority of our leather now comes from LWG Certified tanneries, which means the tanneries have been evaluated and certified for best practices against the following criteria:

  • Material traceability
  • Environmental management system
  • Restricted substances
  • Energy consumption
  • Water usage
  • Air and noise emissions
  • Waste management
  • Effluent treatment
  • Health, safety
  • Emergency preparedness
  • Chemical management
  • Operations management

One-hundred percent of our leathers will be LWG Certified within the next 18 months.

Shifting production to LWG Certified tanneries has had a significant positive impact in the following areas:

  • Carbon emissions - LWG Certified tanneries monitor air emissions, as this is a critical part of their protocol. Tanneries detail all points of forced emissions to air (e.g., boiler stacks, spray machines, fume cupboards, etc.), in addition to the results of environmental aspects and impact assessments made upon those emissions. In this way, we have invested in reducing the negative health impacts of pollution along our value chain.
  • Water management and stewardship - LWG Certified tanneries must have operating permits in place depending on their geographical location when it comes to water consumption, usage and discharge into local waterways. Tanneries undergo a re-audit every two years and are required, as part of the protocol, to provide water pollution data based on the previous months to show either an improved rating or maintenance of a high standard of water quality to enable them to remain LWG Certified.
  • Chemical management - LWG Certified tanneries are required to manage and dispose of their chemicals responsibly and are aligned with our commitment to avoid the use of hazardous chemicals.

Working with LWG Certified tanneries and vegetable tanning has significantly reduced the chemical pollution that occurred in our supply chain when we sourced a much higher percentage of products from tanneries that did not have these 3rd party certified practices and systems in place, and this was a primary motivator for reshaping our supply chain and raw materials providers over the last few years.

 

 

4. PACKAGING & DISTRIBUTION

We are committed to improving packaging materials and recyclability and reducing shipping emissions. We measure and offset 100% of our upstream (factory to distribution center) and downstream (distribution center to customer) shipping and have achieved reductions in shipping emissions by relying more heavily on ocean shipments vs. air.

The majority of our packaging is made from recycled corrugated cardboard and is fully recyclable. We are in the process of overhauling our packaging to make it even more environmentally responsible, and from SS22 forward, we plan to utilize a single box instead of double boxing our products, which will cut our packaging materials and impacts in half when we compare 2021 to 2022.

 

 

5. CIRCULARITY & POST-USE PRODUCT LIFECYCLE

We are committed to growing at a healthy rate that does not put the planet at risk. In contrast to fast fashion’s linear “take, make, dispose” model, we embrace circularity–a system that reuses and recirculates products and materials. We strive to take environmental impact into account at all stages ranging from initial design, to the sourcing of materials, to manufacturing, to logistics to the final customer, to the end lifecycle of products post consumer use, and all steps in between.

Our intention is to keep our products in use as long as possible, which is why we aggressively push the sales of our leather cleaning kits and products that better care for our goods, in addition to educating our customers on how to maintain our products.

We have several customers who have resoled their shoes to keep them in use. At the end of the product life, we encourage customers to recycle and dispose of their products responsibly when necessary.

We offer leather care kits and upcycling services at 100% of our brick-and-mortar locations, and we incentivize customers to use these services by offering free shipping when they want to mail products in, as well as $40-50 credit on future purposes when they recycle their footwear as part of our product reclamation program in partnership with Soles4Souls.

Soles4Souls
As we continue to combat the excessive amount of landfill waste that fast fashion has created, we are committed to working under a circular fashion model–a system that reuses and recirculates products and materials. Since launching this program, we have collected and diverted 7,143 pairs of used shoes from landfills, which averages to approximately 2,381 pairs per year. One-hundred percent of these shoes have been donated to Soles4Souls, a Nashville-based organization that distributes donated items to various programs around the world to help individuals and communities in need.

Soles4Souls’ programs are distinct from typical distribution schemes that wind up polluting the Global South, and 0% of donated products go straight to landfills or incinerators. Soles4Souls is “helping hard-working entrepreneurs build their own businesses selling donated new and used shoes and clothing to step out of poverty.” Moreover, through Soles4Souls, small business owners earn a sustainable living wage and are able to purchase necessities like food, shelter, and education for their families.

Soles4Souls develops sustainable partnerships and programs in which shoes and clothing are a vehicle for equitable, educational and economic opportunities. And in turn, they empower people to break the cycle of poverty. Soles4Souls works alongside partners to unlock economic opportunities for people to maximize their potential and provide access and representation for all people, especially more vulnerable communities such as women, youth and people of color.

We look forward to establishing more initiatives to extend the lifecycle of our products in the future.

 

Conclusion

In summary, our research has led us to believe that leather can be used ethically and responsibly. And at this point, we are not convinced that there are better options from a sheer environmental-impact perspective.

With that said, we believe it’s essential to assess sustainability holistically and to always be searching for new ways to improve. This is why we’re constantly on the lookout for the most sustainable raw materials on the market. (We are hopeful there will be better leather alternatives in the future.)

Our assessment has also helped us recognize that we have several areas for improvement. So, we’ve committed resources to map out 100% of our supply chain, ensuring compliance to best animal welfare practices at the farm level, and launching a resale platform and repair program to extend the life of our products.

We hope you enjoyed this deep dive into the sustainability of leather, and if it raised any additional questions, we’d love to hear them.

 

We Want To Hear From You

Nisolo means “not alone.” It’s a tribute to the importance of relationships and our interconnectedness with one another and the planet. We welcome all stakeholders to learn about our business and its impact so that we can work in collaboration to shift the industry in a more sustainable direction.

If there is an area of our business you have additional questions about as it relates to why and how we work with leather, we want to make ourselves available to you. We know we have a long way to go, and we’d love to hear from you about what you think we can be doing to further improve. We’d also love to hear what you think we’re doing well, as it’s tough work to compete with companies in our industry who intentionally cut corners on a regular basis.

Put simply, all news from you is good news to us, and we’d love to hear your feedback. If you’d like to contact us relating to our social and environmental practices, please reach out directly to sustainability@nisolo.com.

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