Australia’s slaughter of kangaroos has long been an outlier on the world stage when it comes to our treatment of wildlife. In contemporary times, it was rivaled in scale and savagery perhaps only by the mass killing of baby harp and hooded seals in Atlantic Canada.
Nike, one of the most recognizable brands in the world, announced yesterday that it is ending its sourcing of kangaroo skins for its Nike Tiempo and all other shoes in 2023. This action, following a similar announcement from Puma just two weeks earlier, means that two of the three biggest buyers of kangaroo skins are exiting their roles as market financiers of the largest mammalian slaughter of terrestrial wildlife on the planet. (Diadora, the fourth largest seller, announced a kangaroo-free policy in 2021.)
Australia’s kangaroo-killing night-shooters, like Canada’s daytime clubbers of seals, asked too much of their customers. They asked their buyers to ignore the blood and guts of their enterprise. Yes, the blood on the ice is hard to miss in maritime Canada, but it’s also visible on the red-brown earth of the Australian Outback.
While the sealers took aim and killed 300,000 baby seals a year at the zenith of the hunt in the 1990s, the kangaroo shooters annually and incidentally kill 500,000 joeys as they extinguish the lives of 1.5 million adults, many of them lactating females.
Both industries had their phalanx of corporate spokespersons and government protectors trying to attach some ecological rationale for what was a purely and ruthlessly commercial enterprise. The propaganda about “too many seals” on the remote ice floes seemed as much of an exaggeration as the Australian government saying kangaroos, who had evolved on the Australian landscape over 15 million years, couldn’t hack it without men shooting up the mobs in killing sprees.
Kangaroos Aren’t Shoes
When the Center for a Humane Economy launched its Kangaroos Are Not Shoes (KANS) campaign in 2020—with my having studied the political lessons of the seal hunt after launching a renewed campaign against it two decades ago—I knew we could prevail in our efforts to halt the mass slaughter of kangaroos. It was a real vulnerability for the commercial hunters and processors that their handiwork depended on the purchasing practices of the world’s biggest brands in athletic wear—Puma, Nike, Adidas, Diadora, and others. Compared to the seal kill campaign, we’d never had such identifiable corporate participants in the cruelty.
In an era where the adoption of corporate responsibility principles is as central to business operations as having a human resources or accounting staff, Nike, Puma, Adidas, and others had high-minded rhetoric on their websites about sustainability and even dabbled with animal welfare commitments. The words rang hollow though when you understood that the companies were financing the killing by paying for the skins.
And in 2020, when we launched the KANS campaign, the world had just seen the horrors of Australia’s fires that had killed millions of kangaroos and billions of other animals. Millions of people reached out to help. Well, if it was a moral problem for the kangaroos to be burned in a conflagration, wasn’t it also a problem for the kangaroos to go down in a hail of gunfire? Perhaps the shooting, which ran day after day, was even worse, with its clockwork schedule and numbing premeditation.
Our effort was designed to ask the companies to honor the moral principles it had espoused and to unleash the manufacturing creativity that had allowed those companies to succeed.
Morality + Innovation = Humane Economy
As is often the case, the public-relations pronouncements of companies involved in tawdry business practices explain change based more on innovation than morality, with Puma noting that it’s ditching “K-Leather” for the non-animal-based K-BETTER material. “K-BETTER has proven to outperform the previous KING K-Leather in testing for touch, comfort, and durability,” Puma explained in its announcement that the PUMA KING would be a vegan shoe. It went on to say that Puma “is so convinced by the performance characteristics of K-BETTER that it will stop producing football boots [soccer cleats] with kangaroo leather altogether this year.”
Indeed, it was a major moment when our campaign managers — first Mitchell Fox, who launched and engineered our campaign before moving to the Summerlee Foundation, and more recently the Center’s Natasha Dolezal — counted up the goals scored on soccer’s biggest stages and revealed that the world’s elite players had long ago started shedding the skins of kangaroos on their feet.
At the European Football (soccer) Championships in Italy in summer 2021, players wearing Nikes scored 73 out of 123 total goals, according to Fox. But 72 out of 73 came from models made of Flyknit, a synthetic material. Only one goal was struck with a Nike shoe made from kangaroos.
Out of 172 goals scored in last year’s World Cup, Dolezal determined, 164 came from players wearing synthetic shoes or conventional leather (though synthetics dominated). When you look at those numbers, you understand that kangaroo leather is anything but a necessity.
“If the non-kangaroo-based shoes are good enough for Argentina’s Lionel Messi, France’s Kylian Mbappe, and the other top players in the world, they should be good enough for high-school soccer players and weekend warriors who play the sport,” says the Center’s Jennifer Skiff, a part-time Australian and director of international programs.
The best evidence of Nike’s marketing genius is that most people have never heard that this company — whose swoosh is so familiar that we can all sketch it by memory—has been complicit in a mass commercial slaughter of wildlife. This has been going on for decades, and Nike’s executives and marketers are fully aware of the unique cruelty it involves, even as they actively developed alternatives.
Nike and other footwear manufacturers have over decades pioneered the development of light, non-animal fabrics that now dominate their other athletic shoe offerings, such as running or tennis.
That’s why it was perplexing that these big brands held onto kangaroo sourcing for so long and were so tight-lipped about the whole matter of kangaroos and soccer cleats, perhaps hoping that we and our campaign would just fade away.
Closing a Chapter on Cruelty
The “k-leather” supply chain begins when these mostly nocturnal animals are pursued at night, with spotlights and long-range rifles. Encircling areas where the kangaroos are grazing, the hunters move in, causing scenes of mayhem and appalling, indiscriminate violence. On foot or in trucks, the shooters chase down kangaroos trying to get away, and make no attempt to spare the many females carrying their young.
The standard practice — actually approved by Australian authorities — is to take the young, known as joeys, from their dead or dying mothers and club them or smash their heads against the bumper of a truck. Studies based on first-hand accounts estimate that as many as 800,000 orphaned joeys meet this fate every year, and that some 40 percent of the millions of kangaroos shot in these hunts are only wounded and then let to suffer a slow death.
In all of this, Nike and its competitors, Puma and Adidas, seem to have outsourced their business ethics. A small, merciless skinning industry insists that Australia’s ecosystem requires an annual massacre of the nation’s most iconic animals. These companies took the kangaroo killers at their word, giving themselves more virtue points for “sustainable” practice, and both sides of the transaction profit from extreme and obvious cruelty.
These rationalizations are the ones fading away, and so, too, must their practices. The industry, with these two momentous announcements this month is turning the corner. It’s time for Adidas to get on board now, too.
By every measure, life will be better when human satisfaction and need are no longer built upon the foundation of animal cruelty, I wrote in The Humane Economy. Indefensible practices will no longer need defending; unnecessary evils will no longer need excuses. In their place, in market after market, we’ll see the products of human creativity inspired by human compassion, a combination that can solve any problem, meet any need, and overcome any wrong.