Puma runs away from leather in pursuit of smaller footprint

Puma runs away from leather in pursuit of smaller footprint

Puma may soon be waving goodbye to leather.

Executive chairman Jochen Zeitz recently said that the company will soon have to give up using the material in its athletic shoes because of the ecological damage it does to the planet. Zeitz said in an interview with the Financial Times that Puma will "eventually" have to study possible leather alternative materials.

Zeitz said in the interview that the production and processing of leather are the biggest contributors to Puma's environmental footprint.

"We have to find alternative ways of producing our raw materials without asking nature to do it for us," the Financial Times quoted Zeitz as saying.

The German-based company's recent announcement is just the latest sign that the sports footwear industry is searching for ways to cut its leather dependency.

Shoemakers have long offered alternatives to leather footwear. But only recently has the trend hit the sports market.

"Leather is really old school," said Matt Powell, chief retail analyst with SportsOneSource. "It's heavy, it doesn't breathe well, and it isn't always consistent."

While sustainability is a big reason for footwear companies to strip away the leather, the quest to build the perfect shoe is also a big driver, analysts say.

"One of the primary drivers in the business is brands are always trying to figure out how to make a shoe lighter and a pliable-type of material tends to be heavy," Powell said.

Leon Kaye, editor of GreenGoPost.com and an expert on business sustainability, said a combination of things have contributed to footwear companies looking beyond leather.

"Younger consumers have greater expectations around sustainability," he said. "Also, all of these (traditional) commodities are becoming more expensive, so companies have to be more creative in their thinking. And, alternative (solutions) are now more cost effective."

In the race to make the best sustainable athletic shoe, Nike recently launched a new brand of footwear that's made entirely of yarn. The lightweight athletic shoe also has other sustainability features.

"An additional environmentally sustainable benefit to Nike Flyknit is that it reduces waste because the one-piece upper does not use the multiple materials and material cuts used in traditional sports footwear manufacture," Nike proclaimed in launch material.

Since the Financial Times interview, Puma has been mum about specifics on reducing its leather use. The company did not respond to requests for an interview.

Some possible alternative material that could replace leather range from conventional cotton to fossil-fuel based polyester exist, Kaye said.

Possible clues on what material may be used may come from Puma's latest eco-athletic shoe.

Last year, Puma rolled out its classic suede sneakers made of recycled material. The outer sole of the sneaker is derived from rice husks.

The future for the shoe may not include any of the traditional material we're used to, analysts say.

"I think companies are always looking out for the next innovation," Powell said.