...exploring alternatives for leather to apply in sneakers

Name: Kevin Mac Donald
Profession: Industrial Design Engineering Student at TU Delft and Founder at KOQOS
Website: www.koqos.com

Can you summarize for us what type of product you are developing ?

Since last year, I have been involved with the development of a new sneaker brand called KOQOS. The idea of KOQOS started with me wanting to create a sneaker that is fresh, refined and respectful towards people and planet for those who are crazy about sneakers, just like me. I truly believe that those who are part of the sneaker community are the ones with the power to accelerate the industry towards becoming more respectful. With regards to sustainability and ethics, I really try to take a holistic approach by taking the production, use and end-of-life stages of our product into consideration and then consistently improving in these areas. We do this together with partners that are also at the forefront of sustainable innovation and I know that we can create a fun and fair future together through design innovation, meaningful collaboration and integrating culture.

What was the most essential for you in selecting materials ?

Throughout the development process, the selection criteria for materials have changed quite a bit as I started to learn more about material properties, availability and environmental impacts. As we were testing different materials and further refining our mission as a brand, it became clear that the materials we wanted to use should be long lasting, sustainably sourced and produced and we should be able to process them at end-of-life in a way that keeps the value of the product and materials high for as long as possible.

What is the main reason for not directly selecting leathers, and exploring other alternatives ? Shoes for centuries have been made of leather. Why change this ?

Since research suggested that the environmental impact of animal leather was significantly higher than that of vegan leather alternatives, plus the animal welfare aspect of it, I started out mainly looking at vegan alternatives to animal leather. However, while thoroughly researching and testing some of the vegan alternatives, we were not yet satisfied with the durability and aesthetics it provided.

One more thing I would need to add to our material selection criteria from the previous question would be the way the material looks and feels. Sustainable sneakers that are currently on the market also often carry the distinct “sustainable look”. This might work if you want to target people that are already invested into sustainable fashion and lifestyle. However, the gap we want to bridge is the one between those that are crazy about everything sneakers and those that primarily care about sustainability. Therefore, we needed to make sure that the product had a certain look and feel, while also staying true to our core values of walking with respect for people and planet.

Eventually, I started asking the question if animal leather was actually as bad as some people made it out to be. Genuine leather is per definition a naturally derived material. So what happens in the process of going from cow to leather that is really damaging our environment? Talking in circular economy terms, we are for instance seeing a lot of biological materials entering the technical cycle due to processing and manufacturing. And of course there is the topic of animal welfare that we needed to really dive into. That’s what’s so interesting about sneakers. You really have to consider so many dimensions of sustainability and ethics, while also trying to make a product that is high quality and connects with the culture.

Can you highlight some alternative materials which really got your attention for its specific quantities or performance ?

Cactus and grape leather are two materials that I found to be quite interesting. I was able to order small quantities and sample packages from Desserto. Desserto is a small company in Mexico that started creating leather alternatives from cactus. It is a very interesting process and the final product felt pretty good. However, in my experience, the implementation of the material in footwear was still limited because of the creasing points on shoes around the toe box that showed to cause too much strain for their current product. Since I did not want to damage the perception of sustainable sneakers in any way in the eyes of consumers, I decided not to use the material at this point. But I have good hopes that this will be solved in the future since these materials are just at the very start of their development. It is great that certain small and big brands already implement materials like these into their products, as it will allow for further development of these promising materials.

Is there any information you like us to explore deeper concerning specific materials ?

In my research on sustainable materials and leather alternatives, I have yet to get my hands on mycelium and mirum leather-like materials. Bigger brands seem to be seriously investing into these two options and are expected to launch products where they incorporate these materials soon. Additionally, a lot of vegan bio-based materials are backed or strengthened with other materials and are only partially or non-biodegradable at end-of-life. Detailed Life Cycle Analysis by third parties should be done to assess the real impact of these leather alternatives and what they can mean for the future of fashion.

Something else you like to mention ?

First of all, I am excited to see the initiative of CirQLeer as it is definitely something that could help me and other individuals, as well as established brands to make well informed decisions on sustainable and ethical material use. Furthermore, I would like to stress the importance of progress over perfection. Just like me, a lot of the change drivers in sustainable fashion are definitely not perfect, but real progress is made by the ones that are brave enough to try different things out anyways and create excitement. Finally, I love to see the focus of small and even big brands shifting from a competition mindset to one that allows for truly meaningful and effective collaboration that has a positive impact on everyone involved. I am excited for the near future, because great things are being developed all around me.

– Kevin, KOQOS

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