Apr 03, 2024
by Karl Smith
Can Upcycled Leather Ever Be Ethical or Sustainable?
by Karl Smith
Apr 03, 2024

Is leather ever sustainable? Is leather ever ethical? Is upcycled or deadstock leather really that much better for the planet? Can leather have a positive impact?

These are questions we find ourselves asking fairly regularly. They’re also questions we get very different answers to, most often depending on someone’s perspective – either as a brand, or from a personal, philosophical point of view – and depending on their knowledge of the alternative and next-gen materials space.

We have had productive conversations about this. Just last month, profiling Stockholm-based Deadwood Studios, co-founder Felix von Bahder reflected on the brand’s use of upcycled tannery discards, interrogating the issue of waste and reckoning with their (small) part in financing the leather industry status quo.

All this is to say that, regardless of what either side of the debate might have you believe, there is indeed a debate to be had – questions that are still worth asking, and answers which aren’t as obvious as they may seem at first.

And it’s these questions which bring us to Dr. Martens – specifically the just-released range of “Genix Nappa” boots using upcycled leather from Gen Phoenix.

Billed as “the world’s first sustainable recycled leather company at scale,” the U.K.-based innovator takes landfill-destined leather, breaks it down to the fiber level, and uses recycled water to create a new material out of what might once have been waste. Which, of course, sounds like a good thing – and to some degree it is: we know by now that landfill isn’t an ideal resting place for anything, and – with the leather industry creating roughly 4,000,000,000 lbs of “scrap” to be discarded or incinerated – it’s clear that some kind of intervention, sooner rather than later, is certainly vital to disrupt that in one way or another.

And, yes, this is one way. But the question remains: is it the right way? In a similar ethical quandary as Deadwood, getting ahold of those discards still means paying the tanneries – still means giving money to the leather industry to continue its environmentally damaging mass production of animal hides – but on a much larger scale which, in a sense, not only does nothing to change destructive practices but also incentivizes continued over-production.

Another question, then, is why a brand like Dr. Martens – a legacy label with considerable resources and cultural capital – would choose a material like Genix Nappa over a truly next-generation material. It’s not that Dr. Martens doesn’t have a vegan range – there have been cruelty-free options available for some time now – but that they’re an imperfect alternative, largely made from synthetics, which could stand to be the focus of improvement and which, if given the requisite attention, could more effectively move the needle than a more progressive animal-derived product.

Is this a question of prioritising past over future – giving precedent to well-established history over the notion of real change?

“This is just the beginning, and we will continue to evolve our mix of materials to increase the number of sustainable materials incorporated across all product categories.” – Tuze Mekik, Global Head of Sustainability at Dr. Martens

“Responsibly sourced, durable leather has always been at the core of Dr. Martens footwear,” explains the brand’s Global Head of Sustainability, Tuze Mekik, “As we work towards a more sustainable future, we are constantly looking at new ways to innovate our materials. The Genix Nappa collection reimagines our icons using reclaimed leather offcuts that would otherwise be destined for landfill.”

Here, for better and for worse, Mekik does provide some answers. On the one hand, for example, she alludes to the preservation of Dr. Martens’ legacy in terms of “reimagined icons” (in this case, the 1460 Lace-Up Boot, 1461 3-Eye Shoe, and 2976 Chelsea Boot) and the materials which have “always been at the core” of the brand’s offering. On the other, however, there is also a clear suggestion that Genix Nappa – like its Felix Rub “vegan leather” – isn’t so much an imperfect solution as a progressive stepping stone; a small change which forms part of a bigger, over-arching plan for systemic shakeup.

“We’re excited to have developed a more sustainable material that tackles leather waste whilst not compromising on our renowned durability and look,” Mekik continues, clearly keen to reassure the Dr. Martens faithful that change will neither come too swiftly nor too drastically but not – as you’d expect from someone in the role of Global Head of Sustainability – discounting the need for that change altogether. But, in terms of developing “a more sustainable material that tackles leather waste,” surely the best option here is a product that – in not using leather at all – drives down demand? Or, failing that, to go all-in on Genix, using the upcycled leather material across the entire Dr. Martens product range – and pulling investment in virgin leathers altogether.

On this Mekik notes: “We continue to work with a range of suppliers to develop and test bio-based vegan materials too, as we progress towards our commitment to have a sustainable vegan upper material by 2028. This is just the beginning, and we will continue to evolve our mix of materials to increase the number of sustainable materials incorporated across all product categories.”

All of which is admirable. But it’s also somewhat vague and theoretical when tangible solutions do exist right now. Natural Fiber Welding’s MIRUM material, for example, has successfully been proven fit for use in footwear multiple times at this point and is capable of being produced at scale. What seems to be holding brands like Dr. Martens back from making a truly progressive choice like this, then, isn’t so much the availability of a more progressive material choice but the desire for something proprietary – something of their own. This, obviously, is somewhat less admirable.

The question, in the end, isn’t so much whether upcycled leather can ever be ethical – clearly it can be the better option; clearly, in its way, it can shift the weight of impact; clearly, also, it’s far from a perfect solution or any kind of solution at all – but whether or not it can be an ethical choice when, for reasons pertaining to branding rather than progress, it’s deployed in favor or alternatives which are known to be better in basically every way in terms of planetary impact and (at the very least) on par when it comes to performance.

Ultimately, something like leather – upcycled or deadstock or even vintage – will come down to personal beliefs; for some, it will always be a hard no, and for others it will be circumstantial – a question of making the least worst choice. With regard to Dr. Martens’ Genix Nappa project, however, it’s clear this is a step in the right direction and down a path that stretches well beyond the visible horizon.

And, with this in mind, we know that progress is a journey. It’s also fairly clear, however, that the destination isn’t so far away as the pace of change would have us believe.