Why Nike and Puma Decided to Quit Controversial K-Leather – Sourcing Journal

The industry has spoken: Kangaroo leather is out and synthetic alternatives are on the rise.

Popularized by a tensile strength and flexibility that rivals cowhide, kangaroo leather (also known as k-leather) is being boycotted after Puma, then Nike, promised to replace the controversial material in their popular soccer cleats.

“No animal should be slaughtered for shoes,” said PETA’s executive vice president, Tracy Reiman. The kangaroo-leather trade is notorious for shooting kangaroos and killing their joeys or abandoning them to die, she said. 

According to Australia’s Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, more than 1.3 million kangaroos were killed for commercial purposes in 2021. The animal is controversial as Australia, which is home to more than 40 million kangaroos, has experienced ecosystem damage and crop loss due to the abundance of the species after a subsequent decline of its natural predator, the dingo.

Nike, which promised to stop using k-leather by the end of the year, made the announcement that it will debut a proprietary synthetic material, to replace kangaroo leather, in its Tiempo franchise this summer. Sourcing Journal’s request for comment in regards to the fabrication or manufacturing of this new material, which Nike boasts as being a “better performance solution”, was declined. 

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New Balance has yet to make any commitments regarding the leather, while Adidas told Sourcing Journal it has been able to make substitutions for kangaroo leather with other innovative materials. The company claims that the k-leather that its “responsibly sources” accounts for less than 1 percent of its total material mix.

This ripple effect of k-leather divestments mark a win for lawmakers and animal rights activists who have been aggressively advocating for the welfare of these iconically cute marsupials.

In 2021, a federal ban on kangaroo products, called the Kangaroo Protection Act, was introduced by U.S. Representatives Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.), but was not approved. In January of this year, Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Ore.) introduced a bill that would make it a crime to buy or sell “any product containing a part of a dead kangaroo” in Oregon state, where both Nike and Adidas are headquartered, while a similar bill was presented in Connecticut by Rep. David Michel in the same month.

Not far from the U.S. capital, the Center for a Humane Economy, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization “focused on changing the conduct of corporations on behalf of animals”, has worked to persuade sportswear companies to drop kangaroo skin from their supply chains through the Kangaroos Are Not Shoes campaign since 2020. “Nike’s announcement is a seismic event in wildlife protection,” said the organization’s founder Wayne Pacelle. 

Pacelle, who stepped down as CEO of the Humane Society of the United States in 2018 after multiple accusations of workplace misconduct, is also a partner in Karner Blue Capital, an investment firm whose portfolio includes companies like Beyond Meat, Tesla, Chipotle, H&M and Vanda Pharmaceuticals. “Non-animal-based fabrics are athletically and morally superior,” he said.

While most people don’t want to see a kangaroo killed to make their shoes, jacket or handbag, it is uncertain as to whether a synthetic material alternative to replace k-leather will pose a design challenge for athletic brands moving forward.

“There are concerns that synthetic shoe replacements to k-leather may not match in terms of durability, stretch, and comfort. Synthetics will especially have a difficult time with stretch and forming to the foot like leathers can,” Tiffany Hua, an analyst at Lux Research, a Boston-based advisory, told Sourcing Journal. “Many other developers in the same space have engineered upper materials with a blend synthetic knit of polyester or nylon with layering of polyurethane or molded rubber where I see Nike taking a similar approach.”

While still under wraps, Nike’s new proprietary material may entail the tuning of a TPU or foam composition to mimic the bounce and soft feel of k-leather, while knit technology could be used to enhance stretch, Hua said. “I’m sure there will be use of protective coatings or membrane technologies that maintain the upper’s breathability while enhancing moisture wicking internally and waterproofing and durability externally.” 

Although the true motive behind the domino effect of denouncements is uncertain, a trend towards “vegan” footwear has been ramping up in the past few years, said Matt Powell, an industry analyst at the Spurwink River consulting firm.

“Public sentiment was likely a factor here,” he said with regard to Nike’s announcement. “These shoes are not really commercially important so this is more of a cosmetic change. Consumers are looking for shoes not made with leather and brands are responding. I think over time we will see fewer leather shoes made in response to consumer demand.”

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