Apple dropping leather could help end the premium image of the material


We’re still awaiting today’s Apple event, but alongside the anticipated new products, we’re expecting confirmation of something which might seem relatively minor, but which could prove hugely influential: Apple dropping leather from its iPhone cases and Apple Watch bands.

While the move is not yet official, there does seem to be strong evidence that the company will this year be taking an environmental stand on the issue …

Apple dropping leather – what we know

Our own sources last month told us that there will be no iPhone 15 leather cases this year, and this was later backed by multiple sources pointing to these being replaced with a new replaced with a new woven fabric material.

Later reports said that Apple was also moving away from leather for Watch bands too, again substituting a material believed to be branded as FineWoven.

Further evidence for this was provided in the fact that all Hermès Apple Watch bands – which are made from leather – have been removed from the company’s website ahead of today’s event.

It’s expected that Apple will cite environmental concerns as the reason for its decision.

The environmental debate on leather

Leather has long been considered an environmentally friendly material, being long-lasting, natural, and biodegradable. Additionally, it’s been argued that leather is simply a by-product of the meat and dairy industries, using materials which would otherwise go to waste.

However, in more recent years, this view has been challenged, for two reasons.

First, it’s argued, that leather is in some cases the primary product, not a secondary one. For example, rather few people eat veal these days, yet calves are still raised and slaughtered, because calf leather is highly prized in the fashion and luggage sectors.

Second, some suggest that it is more accurate to view leather as a co-product rather than a by-product of the meat and dairy industries. The reason is that income from leather helps sustain the rearing of cattle, which might not be profitable without that additional income source.

In other words, demand for leather helps maintain meat and dairy production, which are in turn considered to have high environmental costs.

Leather has thousands of years of history

Leather has been used to make clothing for thousands of years. Cro-Magons were believed to use leather skins for warmth and protection some 50,000 years ago, and the ancient Greeks made leather clothing and sandals from around 1200BC.

Demand for leather really took off during the industrial revolution, through mass-production of shoes and belts, with the material appreciated for its durability, and the fact that many consider its appearance to improve with age.

Today, leather is a staple in the fashion industry, and is considered a premium material used by many of the world’s leading fashion brands, as well as the material of choice for many when it comes to sofas and chairs.

Leather is still the default material for premium iPhone cases and Apple Watch bands, and it is this which Apple now seeks to challenge.

But things are changing

Not too long ago, it would have been almost impossible to imagine that any other material could take the place of leather in the luxury market.

But more recently, that has begun to change, with luxury car makers taking a lead – as we noted last month.

Land Rover are considered leaders in non-leather fabrics and sustainability. Their Evoque and Velar models feature a wool–polyester blend from Kvadrat.

Likewise, Mercedes have used Artico—a synthetic vinyl-based leather material—in their cars since 2003. [The material] has been refined over the years so that owners would struggle to tell the difference between leather and Artico.

Volvo are following suit and will only offer leather-free interiors; they will be using Nordico, a non-leather textile made from recycled plastic (PET) bottles, wood fragments from sustainable forests in Sweden and Finland, and corks recycled from the wine industry.

Polestar, their sister brand, will use WeaveTech, a water-based PVC material they have developed in-house.

Even Ferrari offers a leather alternative known as Mycro Prestige, while Tesla has phased out leather altogether.

Apple’s influence can’t be overestimated

Apple is, of course, a massively influential company in general. When it enters a market, the world pays attention.

That’s been true since the beginning of the century, with the launch of the iPod. Until then, mp3 players were things used by geeks, but the iPod turned them into fashionable and hugely popular mass-market products.

Apple repeated that trick with the iPhone. Smartphones went from nerdy products with hardware keyboards and stylus control into a hugely popular device which everyone wanted.

The Apple Watch played a similar role in the smartwatch market, and Vision Pro – or at least its more affordable successors – looks set to do the same for the mixed-reality world.

So when Apple publicly announces that it is abandoning leather, the world is likely to pay attention to that too. Provided its leather alternative(s) look and feel good, it’s pretty much a given that a large slice of those who would have bought a leather case for their shiny new iPhone 15, and a leather strap for their Apple Watch S9, are likely to switch instead to Apple’s new FineWoven material.

Where Apple goes, others will follow

It’s of course not just a question of Apple products. If Apple succeeds first in portraying leather as environmentally unfriendly, and second in creating appealing premium alternatives, then other brands are likely to do the same.

We’ll of course see some third-party companies continue to sell leather Apple accessories. In the short-term, the iPhone maker could be doing them a huge favor by giving them a much larger slice of the pie now that Apple itself is no longer competing in the leather market.

But in the medium term, I think we’re going to see more and more companies offering premium materials which compete directly against leather. In the longer-term, Apple could well play a pivotal role in forever changing the premium image of leather.

Wrap-up on Apple dropping leather

Do I think Apple will kill the leather market overnight? Absolutely not. Trends take time to emerge, and there will always be a segment of the market which will accept nothing less than leather.

But I do think it will play a significant role in reducing demand for leather, not just for iPhone cases and Apple Watch bands, but more widely.

Do you agree? Or do you think leather will remain as popular as ever? Please take our poll, and share your thoughts in the comments.

Photo: David Švihovec/Unsplash

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