At Kunoka we are particularly concerned about the ecological footprint of our products. Sustainability is in the heart of our DNA.
Understanding the true ecological footprint
Fashion brands mislead the consumers too often with marketing buzz about vegan shoes, sustainability and environment friendly production. Don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes. The truth is that the single and by far most important polluting factor of the shoe industry is the overseas transport.
One cargo ship emits as much sulphur as 50 million cars. Cargo vessels are by far the most environmentally unfriendly mode of transportation on the planet. Cargo ships typically use highly polluting bunker fuel, which is comprised of around 3% sulphur – much higher than ultra-low sulphur diesel. One large container ship at sea emits the same amount of sulphur oxide gases as 50 million diesel burning cars. If one super cargo vessel brings 25 million pairs of shoes from Asia or Latin America to Europe at once, each pair of shoes has a CO2 and NO2 footprint equal to the emission of 2 cars driving from Asia or Latin America to Europe. The environmental impact of any other step in the shoe production process is small compared to the impact of the overseas transport with cargo vessels.
So any European consumer who truly cares about our planet and about protecting the environment, should in the first place buy shoes that are sourced and produced locally. All of us should be aware that a shoe produced in Asia or Latin America and then shipped overseas to Europe has an ecological footprint that is many times bigger than a shoe produced and sold locally in Europe, independently whether this shoe is so called "vegan" or made of leather. Fashion Brands claiming sustainability or being environmentally friendly and sourcing or producing in Asia or Latin America are fooling us big time.
At Kunoka, we walk the talk. We craft our shoes in Portugal and source our leathers locally to eliminate the heavy pollution of overseas transport. We accept the consequences: Our production cost is 5 times higher than in Asia or South America, but we are willing to pay that price, because we do care about our ecological footprint and contribution to the protection of our planet.
Untying the complicated ethical knot of Leather
Lots of discussion is going on whether it is ethical and sustainable to use leather for the production of shoes.
First of all, leather is 100% biodegradable. It doesn’t return to the Earth as poison. This cannot be said from the popular synthetic alternatives for leather, the so-called vegan leathers, which are essentially plastic, made of petroleum.
Second, leather is a by-product of the meat industry. The rearing of livestock for meat and leather is linked with high water usage, deforestation and gas emissions which contribute to global warming, but as long as there’s a meat industry, not having a leather industry would be very wasteful and it is better for the planet to use the leather than sending it to the landfill. The ecological footprint of rearing livestock is high, but must be attributed to the meat industry, not the leather industry.
There’s however a specific environmental downside to using real leather: It has to be tanned, or processed until it becomes soft. For 90% of leather around the world, the tanning process, which turns animal hides into leather, uses a chemical solution which includes chrome. The hides are doused in water, chromium salts and tanning liquor for approximately two days which changes the protein structures of the skin so that it doesn’t decompose and retains color. If not managed correctly, chrome and other substances such as lead, arsenic and acids can get into the local water supply. This can have devastating consequences for soil erosion in the surrounding area and for people living around these water ways with symptoms ranging from irritation to the mouth, airways and eyes, skin reactions and digestive problems to kidney and liver damage, cancer and reproductive problems. This is a known problem in China, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh where environmental-protection standards are non-existing.
European tanners use less harsh chemicals or vegetable tanning and they are bound by the strict European environmental-protection standards for the tanning industry. Unregulated tanning and absence of environmental protection standards in Asia and Latin-America is a second major argument for European consumers to favor shoe brands that are locally produced above those produced in Asia or Latin-America. And then there is a the ethical discussion: Should we use animals for food or clothing? If you believe that animals shouldn’t be used for food or clothing, then the choice seems obvious: leather is out. On the other hand, the most popular synthetic alternative, vegan leather, is essentially plastic.
Polyurethane leather is made from petroleum, which is bad for the planet. Choosing between real leather and vegan leather pits questions of animal suffering against questions of sustainability. The world is suffering from a huge plastic pollution. Using plastic as an alternative for leather makes this problem worse.
This being said, at Kunoka, we do care about animal welfare. For the time being we believe that as long as the meat industry exists, using chrome-free leather that is tanned in Europe is one of the most eco-friendly solutions. Leather is a by-product and we think that it is more sustainable than the use of vegan leather because vegan leather is often made from oil – PU, PVC – and that’s plastic. We are not into plastic products. We don’t think it’s sustainable generally and if you use leather products they last you a long time, you can pass them on.
Our viewpoint is that it’s more sustainable to use by-products from the food industry. At the same time we are following-up closely all new technological evolution. Some start-ups are experimenting with lab-grown leather, and once this material becomes available for commercial purposes we will be the first to make the switch, as long as the lab-grown leather can be produced locally in Europe.