30 March 2023
Nike and Puma’s decisions to drop kangaroo leather in favour of alternative materials are warning sirens that should not be ignored, writes ILM Deputy Editor Tom Hogarth.
For a long while, the leather industry has been repeating a mantra – that despite the popularity of biomaterials with brands and the growing investment in the industry as a whole, leather will continue to have the edge when it comes to performance, regardless of the industry.
Part of this confidence was instilled by a FILK Freiberg study, which compared the technical performance of leather, artificial leather and “trendy alternatives” and found overwhelming evidence to support leather’s dominance over the main alternatives in the market across a wide range of physical and haptic performance indicators.
At the time, the researchers said: “None of the leather alternatives showed the universal performance of leather. Nevertheless, some materials achieved high values in selected properties. It is speculated that the grown multilayer structure of leather with a very tight surface and a gradient of the structural density over the cross-section causes this universal performance. To date, this structure could neither be achieved with synthetic, nor with bio-based materials.”
There is a red flag here that was ignored by many in favour of celebrating the unbeatable performance of leather, the properties of which seemed impossible to replicate. However, these materials were already competing with leather in specific performance indicators and it was never out of the realm of possibility that they would outperform leather in several factors or even across the board.
Leather may not have peaked as a material but there can be little room between the performance that has guaranteed historic use across the most important industries in the world for thousands of years and whatever lies in the future. For biomaterials, however, the ceiling is a complete unknown and the pressure is on.
Next generation materials
In a comment earlier this year, ILM columnist Mike Redwood highlighted the findings of the 2022 State of the Industry Report: Next-gen Materials, published by the Material Innovation Initiative, which showed that US$3 billion had been invested into “next generation materials” since 2013. While investment declined in 2022, this overall figure is only growing and is stunningly large compared with investment in the leather industry. This is the kind of money that can drive development at breakneck speed and we’re already seeing the effects.
The most important aspect of the recent news from Puma around kangaroo leather is that its new choice of material, a “non-animal-based” synthetic upper containing at least 20% recycled material”, outperformed kangaroo leather in testing for touch, comfort and durability. The company said at the time: “Puma is so convinced by the performance characteristics of K-BETTER that it will stop producing football boots with kangaroo leather altogether this year.”
In response to this development, Ray Borda, President of the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia (KIAA), said: “It’s no accident Nike and Puma have been using kangaroo leather in premium soccer and football boots because strength for weight there is nothing to compare it to. It is one of the world’s most beautiful and lightest leathers, so consumers receive not only exceptional performance but a beautiful product which is sourced sustainably and responsibly.”
Despite this optimism, it is clear that Puma believes a different story and its focus on recycled material is more of a sustainability bonus to its marketing message. The leather industry has leaned on performance to win out and keep it the leading material for brands across industries, but that strategy may not last much longer.
In another familiar argument for the wider industry, Borda added: “In the absence of a commercial industry, conservation culling would still need to occur to manage the populations of certain species. Every kangaroo harvested for the commercial industry can be individually traced through government regulated tagging and reporting systems to ensure any kangaroos shot inhumanely or by individuals outside the commercial industry are not sold domestically or internationally.
“All commercial industry kangaroo leather is a by-product of the meat industry which would otherwise end up in landfill. Our priority is to use ethical and sustainable practices to turn a by-product into a valuable, premium product.
“The commercial kangaroo industry is worth more than AU$200 million to the Australian economy and employs more than 3,000 people, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and members of remote communities. We create high-quality, traceable meat and leather products responsibly sourced from an open range environment where kangaroos graze on the natural pastures and foliage of the Australian bush.”
It is a strong argument and one that the global leather supply chain believes in and maintains as a core part of its messaging. However, it is also a message that consumers and even brands do not fully understand and will not come around to overnight. An entirely separate article could cover the negatives and inherent problems of plastic recycling but the bottom line is that consumers recognise this as an environment-positive message and will latch onto it in marketing. Puma’s choice, therefore, becomes clearer by the minute.
In his article, Mike commented: “Times are currently difficult but reducing spending on marketing, the environment and research would be the gravest error. We need to consider why, where and how we do our research and consciously fund it.”
It’s hard to say it better than that. The tanning industry cannot become complacent or assume its advantages will remain advantages. Leather has a raft of ways to outperform, outshine and outlast other materials but the messaging needs to hit the right buttons for consumers and, more importantly, reach the people at the brands who make these decisions. We cannot simply expect leather to beat out competitor materials based on performance alone.