Is Leather Sustainable? Here’s Nisolo’s Holistic Approach to Using It
- by Beatrice Murray-Nag
- Sep 15, 2021
Image Credit: Nisolo
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Few things divide sustainability-focused fashion shoppers like leather. While it’s got plenty going for it — it is natural, durable, and takes very little upkeep — there is a whole lot of conflicting information on its environmental impact.
Take the Leather Learning Series from the Textile Exchange, a nonprofit accelerating the adoption of better fibers and materials, which argues we actually have an ethical duty to use it. Leather is a natural byproduct of food production and hides would be wasted if they are not put to use.
Yet one of the fashion industry’s tools of choice when it comes to comparing different textiles, the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, controversially ranks leather as less sustainable than its synthetic counterpart derived from petroleum, polyurethane.
This misconception isn’t helped by the fact that there is so much about leather that doesn’t fit into typical sustainable fashion frameworks. How does a pair of well-worn leather shoes compare to thrice-worn polyurethane heels? Generally the leather pair will outlast the plastic. And it’s hard to quantify the real-time consequences for farmers if fashion stopped using leather altogether, or the carbon positive role cattle grazing could have in regenerative farming systems.
Truly understanding what kind of impact leather has on the planet requires a rich, holistic overview of how that leather is sourced, tanned and manufactured. Nisolo, a certified B Corp providing leather goods and accessories, built a sustainable and ethical brand around leather based on the belief that this material has a role to play in a fairer fashion future. It has gained uniquely deep knowledge of leather over the years by visiting its suppliers and manufacturers and conducting independent audits on its supply chain.
So, what are the brand’s key parameters for a sustainable and ethical approach? And what should we be looking for when shopping for leather shoes and accessories in general?
Leather that comes with farm-level traceability
Nisolo sources leather from farms in the U.S and northern Mexico, which is then tanned in León, Mexico. Some final products are made at one of the three local factories it works with in León, but most are finished up in the facility that the brand owns in Trujillo, Peru. This close-knit supply chain gives the team clear visibility over exactly what happens to their leather as it goes from cow hide to finished piece of footwear or beautiful bag.
While the tanneries typically do the sourcing, Nisolo works side by side with them in a collaborative effort to map 100% of its supply chain. Its tanneries are beginning to track the hides back to farm level, where they are a byproduct of meat farming with a strict stance on animal welfare and biodiversity. Plus, the tanneries are able to confidently say that the leather used has zero links with illegal deforestation, especially of at-risk regions like the Amazon in Peru and Brazil.
Having this level of transparency is essential for leather brands looking to address their social and environmental impact in depth, but it’s far from a norm in the fashion industry. “I’ve heard people say that every company is responsible for the ethics of the next tier down from them in their supply chain, which would mean that as a brand, we’d mainly be responsible for what happens in the factories where our final products are manufactured,” explains Matt Stockamp, Nisolo’s Sustainability Lead. “But that’s just not the reality for where we are as an industry today.”
Instead, the brand wants to measure and minimize the impacts on all four tiers of the supply chain, from farm to finished product.
Safe, sustainable tanning backed up by third-party certification
One of the reasons leather racks up a hefty score on the Higg Index is because of the chemicals that can be used to convert hides to finished leather.
Nisolo visits every tannery it works with to get a first-hand perspective on their practices prior to starting to collaborate. 95% of the tanneries that it works with are certified by the Leather Working Group (LWG), the leading organization for ensuring responsible tanning. That just leaves one smaller tannery that the brand chose and assessed themselves because it works exclusively with vegetable tanning.
“Leather tanning is problematic when it is not regulated,” Stockamp confirms, referencing scenes from director Andrew Morgan’s documentary “The True Cost.” So, third-party verification becomes seriously important here.
LWG audits are conclusive: Leather manufacturers are assessed against a 17-point criteria that ranges from material traceability, to chemical management, to water use, to effluent treatment — the process of removing wastewater contaminants – which is an important step in reducing fashion’s water impact. LWG also has a hard line on health and safety that facilities need to pass.
But as Stockamp points out, brands still need to do their homework. “LWG don’t look too intensively at animal welfare. It’s becoming a larger priority for them, but it’s still something that we’re looking at independently and really digging into with our farms.” He also notes that while the LWG certification focuses on manufacturers, it doesn’t cover the impacts at farm level and brands need to seek separate certifications from traders and subcontractors.
Full transparency on carbon emissions
Another important step in Nisolo’s approach to working with leather responsibly is precisely measuring its carbon cost.
Since it can be tricky to rely on global averages to get a grip on the environmental impact of leather, the brand made a commitment to measure its carbon footprint and reach net-zero. Fashion companies often struggle to calculate emissions generated by their suppliers and manufacturers. So how is Nisolo keeping track?
The team calculated the brand’s carbon footprint themselves for several years, but have since partnered with Climate Neutral, a nonprofit organization working to reduce global carbon emissions, to make sure these measurements are accurate. They use its Brand Emissions Estimator (BEE) to arrive at a precise estimate of their total carbon emissions. Then, they work together to offset these emissions, plus create and implement a Reduction Action Plan.
“Once we got visibility of our entire supply chain, we realized we had a lot more control over our emissions than we thought we’d had previously,” Stockamp explains. Nisolo was able to offset unavoidable emissions and help repair the leather industry’s reputation when it comes to the rainforest by investing in conservation work in the Amazon basin. Now, it’s Climate Neutral certified.
The brand has also joined forces with impact tech company Doconomy and is using the 2030 Calculator to estimate the impact of an individual product, which guides the team’s decision making there. As a result, they have been able to reduce emissions through straightforward changes like switching shipments from air to ocean.
This kind of product-level assessment has the same shortfalls as the HIGG Index, because they are both informed by Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology, which has well-known limitations when it comes to farmed fibers. However, having this kind of transparency with its customer base is all part of the brand’s goal to mobilize informed consumers with agency to change the industry for the better.
He sums up this approach modestly: “We’re focused on being perfectly transparent before ever getting to a place where we’re perfect with our practices.”
A B Corp-approved approach that covers people and planet
A core part of Nisolo’s sustainability work is its focus on ensuring its workers are paid a living wage, which is the wage required to live a decent life in a given area or country. To get a really good assessment of what a living wage is in the area where its Peru factory is based, Nisolo teamed up with ACCOUNTABLE. It continues to adapt the baseline figure they arrived at together on an ongoing basis to fit the fluctuating living costs in the local community.
The brand currently provides a living wage for 100% of the workers in its Tier 1 factories in Peru and Mexico, in Kenya (where it works with independent artisans to make its jewelry), and at its operational facilities in the U.S. Now, its goal is to verify and provide living wages across their full supply chain.
It’s part of Nisolo’s holistic way of doing things, which puts emphasis on “People, Planet, Transparency, Accountability, and Ecosystem Building.” Thinking about an ecosystem, or taking a full circle approach, is certainly reflected in its B Corp certification. It’s one of the few really robust certifications out there that doesn’t just look at sustainability on a product-specific level but takes a holistic look at what a company is doing.
“It’s been a really good certification for verifying our practices and ensuring that what we’re claiming is actually happening,” Stockamp says. And in the brand’s spirit of always wanting to push itself further, he notes how B Corp certification has helped give the team a good roadmap for determining the future work that they want to be doing.
The brand’s high score is solid proof that the sustainable fashion movement’s most heated materials debate needs to shift to consider how and where a product is made, from raw materials to our wardrobes.
This holistic, detailed approach has another upside. It produces beautiful shoes that, with good care and occasional repair, can last a lifetime.