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Why Koio Chose Regenerative Leather Over Vegan Alternatives

Four months after releasing its “first true women’s collection” this fall, Koio marked another milestone Friday: its first sneaker made with regenerative leather.

The Capri Regenerative marks an initial step in a broader plan to source all Koio’s materials from regenerative farms by 2025. Though leather remains the luxury brand’s primary focus for now, co-founder Johannes Quodt said Koio is also looking into regenerative rubber for its outsoles and regenerative cotton for its laces.

The environmental impact of the footwear industry has been something Koio has been learning more about over the years, Quodt said. Up to now, its sustainability efforts have included using Leather Working Group-certified leathers, Forest Stewardship Council-certified natural rubbers and recycled rubbers.

Last year, Koio decided to take on sustainable leather. In their search, Quodt and his fellow co-founder Chris Wichert considered the possibility of a vegan leather—a road currently being explored by brands like Adidas and Lululemon. Ultimately, however, they decided against a plant-based alternative. Though the brand had been “excited” by the possibility of working with vegan leathers, Quodt said, their frequent reliance on plastics left Koio “disappointed.”

Koio's Capri Regenerative uses regenerative leather sourced from the Swiss Alps
The Capri Regenerative comes in two colorways: “Castagna” and “Onyx.” Koio

“The plastics used to make vegan leathers chip away over time, sending microplastic particles out into our soils and oceans, and this ultimately leads to depletion of wildlife,” Quodt told Sourcing Journal. “On top of that, the mixed composition of vegan leather also makes the material virtually impossible to recycle, and it doesn’t biodegrade. If there’s ever a form of regenerative vegan leather that doesn’t come with all of these downsides, then we’ll definitely consider including it in our collections.”

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Quodt also cited statistics put out by leather proponents that suggest current leather consumption actually underutilizes the hides produced by the meat industry. In the U.S. alone, the Leather and Hide Council of America estimates 4.8 million hides, or 14.5 percent of total hide production, were either destroyed or discarded in landfills in 2020. “Even if we all cut back on meat consumption, there would be enough hides to produce all of the world’s leather goods,” Quodt claimed.

Set on finding “the most sustainable leathers,” Koio decided to turn to regenerative agriculture, a system of farming practices designed to rehabilitate and enrich the local ecosystem. In Koio’s case, Quodt said, this means that the farms it sources from allow livestock to graze in a way that mimics the natural movements of wild herd animals. “This method of farming increases biodiversity, strengthens environmental resistance against natural hazards like floods, and sequesters atmospheric carbon into the soil and the organisms that live in it,” he added.

Switching to regenerative leather was no simple matter, however. As a byproduct of the meat industry, leather is not easy to trace back to a specific farm. “We essentially had to build an entirely new regenerative leather supply chain,” Quodt said. For the Capri Regenerative, that meant turning to small meat manufacturers that Koio knew sourced only from regenerative farms in the Swiss Alps.

Once Koio had found a leather supplier, the tanning process presented another obstacle. When presented with a sample of the new regenerative leather, the Italian tannery Koio typically works with said it wouldn’t be able to tan the hides. “They only work with a select few cuts of hides, so they couldn’t work with these organically shaped regenerative hides we sent them,” Quodt said. Eventually, the company found another tannery in Germany that both met its standards and was willing to work with the Swiss hides.

As regenerative leathers are produced on a much smaller scale, the material comes at a price premium compared to conventional leather, which is more readily available. For the Capri Regenerative, which comes in at $328, this translates to a $60 premium compared to Koio’s non-regenerative Capri sneakers—a “small price to pay considering how impactful regenerative farming is in restoring our planet,” Quodt said.