Leather may be supple, comfortable and attractive for apparel, shoes and accessories, but it also has a massive environmental footprint. Leather tanneries use huge quantities of water and chemicals, and the material often processed in countries where regulations are weaker and are held back even further by lax enforcement. In the view of one Gizmodo writer, “leather is slowly killing the people and places that make it.”
Nike, which has already built a strong reputation as a leader in developing innovative fabrics and materials for its apparel and footwear, says it has developed a low-carbon, low-impact leather material that could become “game-changing” for both its performance and role in boosting waste diversion across its supply chain.
“Flyleather,” says the company, is the next FlyKnit. The company cites statistics suggesting that up to 30 percent of the leather derived from animals such as cattle is lost during processing and those scraps end up in landfill. But Nike eliminates that waste stream by gathering those scraps and then shredding them into fibers. Those recycled fibers, in turn, are blended with synthetic fibers via a manufacturing process that combines the materials into the Flyleather product.
Reviews of the material indicate that the material is just as soft as conventional leather while also boasting a similar texture. “Brings cowskin into the 21st century,” crowed Wired Magazine, noting Flyleather’s strength, flexibility and minimal weight.
Nike claims the development of this material was driven partly by the fact that leather has the second-highest impact on both its carbon emissions and water consumption. Flyleather, the company insists, uses 90 percent less water and has a carbon footprint 80 percent lower than the conventional material. Hence, one pair of athletics shoes made with this product has about half the carbon footprint of shoes manufactured out of traditional leather. And instead of coming from a hide, which of course can vary by size, shoes incorporating this material are cut from a roll. The outcome is improved manufacturing efficiency and the elimination of most of the waste associated with shoe production.
The result, exults Nike, is a material 40 percent lighter, yet five times stronger than traditional leather. Athletic shoes designed for sports such as football and basketball were once largely made out of leather, but over time that material was swapped out for materials that performed much better on the field or court. Nike, however, believes Flyleather has the potential to be used for high-performance footwear in the near future.
Of course, Flyleather does not solve the problem of animals still being slaughtered to make shoes, an outcome that rankles animal welfare activists. The animal rights group PETA slammed Nike’s announcement, describing it as a “scam:”
“Half of Nike’s Flyleather is made from the skins of sensitive cows who didn’t want to die—the same struggling animals from the same bloody tanneries that produce any other leather, with nothing “recycled” about it. PETA urges Nike to embrace the vegan half of Flyleather and switch entirely to high-performance, sustainable vegan leather.”
But as is the case with sustainability at large, these changes are not about an overnight transformation: for Nike and other apparel and fashion companies, a development such as Flyleather is about making incremental-but-significant changes. Innovations such as Flyleather allow Nike to retain its customers, remain profitable, and in the end, push the envelope even further in developing materials that are both high-performance and more environmentally responsible. Given Nike’s track record over the past several years, an animal- and completely cruelty-free alternative to leather is most likely not far off.
Image credit: Nike