100% Leather

Ryaton footwear is made with leather, and for a good reason.  It's the best way to go when making an all purpose shoe.  A fully leather shoe forms to the shape of your foot like a second (and third and fourth) skin.  It absorbs moisture that builds up inside the shoe during wear, and keeps your feet dry and happy, even if you're in them all day.  With proper care, a leather shoe will outlast virtually all other footwear, and look better while doing so.  For these reasons I believe leather is unparalleled as a material for making footwear.  But leather is still a complicated material.

Ethics and the Environment

As we all know, there are considerable ethical and environmental issues surrounding the production of leather.  You can't get it without killing an animal.  You can, however, ensure that the animal was raised in a country where a basic level of care (food, water, shelter and medical care) is mandated by law, and slaughtering is done in a regulated way as well.  Of course, the system isn't perfect and, frankly, the law doesn't always go far enough.  Any conscientious consumer is aware of the concerns over how animals are treated by our increasingly industrialized agricultural system, and the environmental impact of this system, despite adherence to the law.  I'm personally a big believer in the benefits of raising cattle on rangeland.  This type of setting does put the animal at a greater risk of predation, disease, and all manner of injury due to environmental stress, no question.  It also requires more land, and all this costs money and time to the producer, to say nothing of the human cost of stress created by even greater unpredictability.  The advantage comes from keeping a prairie grassland ecosystem, or at least something comparable, intact.  The prairie grassland ecosystem is a highly productive natural landscape that evolved with foraging ruminants (most famously, the Plains Bison) playing a central role.  On open rangeland, pastured cattle can play this central role in keeping a similar ecosystem flourishing.  It's not a perfect solution, but it would be a first step in a return to a truly sustainable food and leather supply chain.

Unfortunately, the current leather supply chain almost never identifies the precise origins of the source animals.  Tärnsjö Garveri, a Swedish tannery, is a notable exception, but it's an otherwise very rare practice.  As with the food supply chain, changes will be driven by the consumer.  As we began to ask where our meat was coming from, so should we begin to ask where our leather is coming from.  Don't be afraid to ask your seller/supplier where they source their leather, that's how this conversation is going to start.  

Leather Tanning

Once the hide is off the animal, there is still the issue of turning it into leather, or tanning it.  The term tanning comes from the word "tannin" a class of organic compounds that, in daily life, give unripened fruit and red wine their characteristic drying bite.  In nature, tannins are produced by plants to guard against decay, infection, and predators.   It is these qualities that are put to use in the "vegetable tanning" process.  The term "vegetable tanning" comes from the use of plant matter (often tree bark) as a tannin source, and this technique dominated the leather tanning industry until the late 1800s.  At that point, commercial scale "chrome tanning" had begun ushering in an era of durable, flexible, and less expensive leather, while turning the leather tanning process into a highly toxic process.  Very briefly, and along with other differences, in chrome tanning, the salt Chromium(III) Sulfate replaces the tannins of vegetable tanning.

This isn't meant to be a treatise on leather tanning though, nor am I a tanner (or a livestock producer for that matter!) only to emphasize a second time why it matters where leather comes from and how it is made.  It is important to ensure that leather comes from tanneries subjected to stringent environmental regulation.  At present, Ryaton sources approximately 50% of its leather from the Hermann Oak Leather company of St. Louis, Missouri, 30% from the Horween Leather Company of Chicago, Illinois, and the remaining 20% from retail suppliers.  Founded in 1881, the Hermann Oak tannery produces exclusively oak bark, vegetable tanned leather from Canadian and American cattle.  The Horween tannery began producing chrome and vegetable tanned leather in 1905 and remains one of the oldest continuously operating tanneries in North America.  It takes its product and the accompanying ethical and environmental responsibilities very seriously, incorporating "a fully functioning, EPA compliant, City of Chicago monitored, effluent treatment plant."  You can read more about the Horween process here.

All this comes with a cost borne by us, the consumers.  But cheap leather doesn't actually cost any less in the big scheme of things.  It's just extracting the balance from the air we breath, the water we drink, and the people and animals we share this planet with.

So... what to do?

The Ryaton ethos might best be summed up by the phrase, "use better stuff, but less of it".  At the end of the day it's basically just a numbers game.  The fewer pairs of shoes we buy, the less leather we use, the fewer animals we need, and the smaller the impact we have on the planet.  To that end, it's important that we use the best, most durable material we can, and make good shoes.  Shoes that get better with wear, that can be repaired, and pay their own way.