Leather Naturally comments on new Nike material

Leather Naturally was surprised and disappointed by the recent announcement by Nike to use a material reconstituted largely from tannery shavings as an affordable and effective material for some of their footwear. Our issue lies with the terminology being used in calling the product leather and in the unsubstantiated environmental claims. Reconstituted materials of various types have been produced and used in the footwear industry for many years and usually work well alongside leather, but it is wrong to call these products leather, it is also wrong to make the sort of generalized non-factual environmental claims that Nike is making.

To carry the name leather a material must be made of the hide and skin of an animal essentially intact. A reconstituted material like this using the name leather is illegal in many countries where Nike trade, with a good example being the 1965 Lei do Couro 4.888/65 in Brazil. Leather is a unique material that has worked well for society over thousands of years, not least because of its excellent performance and sustainability, but over-familiarity does not mean that we are entitled to abuse the terminology to confuse the public. Recent legal cases regarding the term “bonded leather” around the world should serve as a caution.

Quotes from the Chief Sustainability Officer at Nike, Hannah Jones indicate that the new material uses what Nike call “scrap material from the tanning process”, which we believe is mostly wet blue shavings, and then suggest that this allows them to claim “it uses 90-percent less water and has an 80-percent lower carbon footprint than traditional leather manufacturing”. It is hard to see the logic of this given that it requires a tannery that has made wet blue to provide them with the shavings. Without the tannery, and its full processing procedure, Nike would have no product.

Ms Jones also suggests that 30% of a cattle hide is not used to make leather and is sent to landfill. There is no doubt that some tanneries still produce waste that goes to landfill but those that do usually work on much lower percentages. High figures of 30% and above were discussed in the industry many years ago to persuade tanners to waste less by more accurate processing and to view more of their so-called wastes as raw materials. There are a variety of uses for wet blue shavings of which only one is for making some form of bonded material. The tanners who sends chrome shavings to landfill have hugely reduced in number: it is the action of a thoughtless or lazy processer.

The bland statement that leather is the second highest material used by Nike in terms of environmental impact needs explanation, not the least because obtaining the “waste” is dependent upon that very process. Unlike the many plastics used in Nike footwear leather is a natural material and not from a petrochemical base. As a modern engineered product, it’s processing carbon footprint is pretty much identical to competitive materials. In terms of longevity leather is superior to alternate materials, which is a prime consideration for sustainability.

We are told that the new material mixes natural fibres with a synthetic material, which will be petrochemical based. Given the unique structure and strength that leather offers, naturally, a fabricated structure built of shorter strands of chopped fibre held together artificially has not yet been shown to match the properties of leather. Tensile strength and abrasion resistance are amongst the most difficult to achieve. As such we think that Nike should publish the data they are promoting and identify the types of leather they are comparing it with.

The essence of sustainability today should be built on transparency. Nike’s promotion of a new material making major claims will not resonate with consumers or with other industry stakeholders unless they answer more of the many questions which their claims give rise to. And stop calling it leather, when it is not.

Leather Naturally

September 20th, 2017


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