Making Strides

Sustainable Footwear Steps Forward

How is the shoemaking industry creating more environmentally sustainable products? We identify the leaders in the footwear business who are also at the forefront of climate action.

Sustainable Footwear Steps Forward
Image: Sergio Rossi

Earlier in September, a climate clock was unveiled in the heart of New York City, displaying the time left before we reach climate collapse. It’s a sobering reminder to the branches of all industries that urgent actions need to be taken, and each industry needs to reflect on its current business model to make agile measures and streamlined processes.  

The footwear industry alone carries a heavy responsibility in this fight to prevent irreversible environmental damage. A United Nations Environment Programme study in November 2019 stated that it accounts for nearly 20 percent of all industrial water pollution annually, and it releases 10 percent of our carbon emissions into the air. The published feature also notes that the amount of clothes and shoes thrown away has doubled to 14 million tonnes each year in the past two decades. 

Image: Nike

The obvious issue at the root of the problem is the footwear industry’s reliance on excessive plastic and plastic-like materials in their shoemaking process. Firstly, the creation of synthetic parts like resin heels or air-filled rubber soles relies on the use of potentially earth-damaging materials. On top of that, in assembling a single pair of shoes, components are stitched, glued and moulded in complicated ways that make it almost impossible to recycle. 

The researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that more than two-thirds of a running shoe’s carbon impact can come from manufacturing processes alone. A typical pair of running shoes comprises 65 discrete pairs requiring more than 360 steps to assemble, from sewing and cutting to moulding, coating and heating. The meticulous nature of the production line has been proven to be energy-intensive and carbon-intensive.

With Gen Z accounting for 40 percent of global consumers in 2020, it’s no longer enough for brands to say they care about the environment; they need to show that they align their values with the customer’s concerns of how their purchases are affecting the earth’s health.

According to McKinsey in a April 2020 report, some two-thirds of consumers worldwide say they believe amid the COVID-19 crisis, it has become even more important for fashion brands to limit impacts on climate change. Around 67 percent of consumers consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor. With this in mind, both footwear giants and younger labels are actively seeking ways to tackle sustainability. Luckily, there are a few who’ve made progress in this aspect.

Image: Nike

Nike’s recent initiative, Space Hippie, is an exploratory footwear collection inspired by life on Mars – where raw materials are scarce, and resourcefulness pays off. Nike’s chief design officer, John Hoke, reflects on the design journey and says that “it’s changed the way we look at materials. It’s changed the way that we look at the aesthetics of our product. It’s changed how we approached putting products together.”

A blend of standard Nike foams and 15 percent Nike Grind rubber is used to construct the sole. The yarn used for the exteriors is made from 100 percent recycled material, while the cushioning uses factory scraps from the production of the Vaporfly 4% Flyknit model. The reduction in virgin material drastically reduces carbon footprint. 

Nike’s stance on tackling climate change extends to various ranges, including the classic Nike Air Force 1 model’s latest iteration. It vouches to integrate recycled material without sacrificing aesthetics – from the foam backer, shoe upper and outsole. 

Image: Allbirds

Amongst the startup footwear ventures, Allbirds stands out from the rest for being vocal on its carbon offset mission.

The estimated carbon footprint of 7.6kg of CO2e emissions per shoe is offset using verified carbon credits such as projects that protect trees, build wind energy, and prevent greenhouse gases from entering our atmosphere.

To engage other like-minded businesses to commit to climate action, they’ve even made the patent on their SweetFoam material public so that other brands can implement it as a sustainable alternative.

Allbirds’ disruptive model of commerce appeals to today’s consumer, having announced plans for expansion after receiving US$100 million in a round of Series E funding that closed earlier in September. 

Recycling and upcycling are becoming standard solutions for sustainability, so newcomer RBRSL makes a different mindful proposition. Starting from SS21, the Italian sneaker brand will offer a genderless, minimalist and sustainable sneaker model. Valentina Curzi, creative director of RBRSL, shares that “The idea to concentrate on a single product is meant to counterbalance frenzied fast fashion rhythms. In this way, the concept of seasonality is revolutionised entirely, therefore freeing fashion from any expiration date.”

Luxury footwear brand Sergio Rossi amplifies its sustainability efforts by leveraging on customisation. The #YourOwnSergioRossi campaign invites avid shoe collectors to customise the brand’s iconic SR1 by choosing from various materials, colours and accessories and topping it off with their personalised initials. 

So how is customisation relevant, you may ask? CEO Ben Demiri of PlatformE that specialises in software to power at-scale customisation and personalisation for global luxury brands, including Dior, Fendi and Zegna, explains that “made-to-order guarantees that not even a single piece is overproduced.” This model appeals to conscientious luxury consumers who are working towards more mindful consumption habits. 

There seems to be a common ground amongst most footwear companies fighting against climate change that reduction is necessary. When it comes to raw materials, one of the paths forward is to avoid mixing materials and present shoes that use only one material that would stand more of a chance of being recycled. That being said, plastic recycling is energy-intensive, and usually, its second existence is often their last, so recycling may not be the ultimate solution. 

The long-term solution? It stills falls onto the customer. As more of us adopt conscious purchasing patterns, these personal changes can spread by “behavioural contagion” and positive feedback loops, encouraging the retail industry to follow suit. These testing times call for brands to exercise their creativity and think beyond the traditional confines of footwear production.

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