With 1.4% of global GHG emissions traced back to the footwear industry, the feel-good platitude “A good pair of shoes takes you to good places” takes on a deeper meaning. What does ‘good’ truly mean at the height of a climate emergency?
22 billion shoes are discarded in landfills each year.
The footwear industry faces a slew of sustainability challenges. The process of crafting shoes typically involves gluing and sewing an assemblage of plastics and metal parts, making it difficult to recycle and take apart when they are no longer wearable. Coupled with the substantial energy and water consumption needed during manufacturing, this leaves behind a significant volume of post-industrial waste. Furthermore, there appears to be a stigma to buying secondhand shoes due to wear and tear and smells associated with them. All this and more add layers of complexity to creating sustainable footwear.
Strides In The Right Direction
At its essence, sustainability is inseparable from environmental consciousness. This is why footwear brands are starting to transition to eco-friendly materials that are not only kind to the planet but also innovative in their design.
In 2019, a new production record of 24.3 billion pairs of shoes were produced.
These materials, such as Appleskin, Ultrasuede®, Biosteel, and Piñatex™, offer a stark contrast to traditional shoe ingredients that are either laden with harsh chemicals or take decades to biodegrade. Moreover, the shift from chrome-tanned leather, suspected of being carcinogenic, to alternatives like Vegetable tanned leather and Rhubarb leather, showcases the industry’s potential to evolve beyond its current practices. New technologies also make possible the creation of bio-based materials, which help shoes decompose faster.
However, the shift toward sustainability doesn’t end with material selection. As we grapple with a new production record of 24.3 billion pairs of shoes being produced in 2019, an overwhelming 22 billion shoes are discarded in landfills each year with some even ending up in the world’s oceans. It is no longer sufficient to focus solely on the materials and manufacturing processes. The design philosophy must also encompass the shoe’s entire lifecycle, taking into account the eventual end of the shoe’s life.
“[A] solution is necessary for when a consumer has worn out their sneakers and is moving on to a new pair.” – Alexa Steiner
“Footwear, in particular, sneakers, are what we call a high frequency basic, meaning that people wear them a lot in a short period of time, and thus they wear out pretty quickly. That’s why a solution is necessary for when a consumer has worn out their sneakers and is moving on to a new pair,” shared Alexa Steiner, the Head of Sustainability at SuperCircle, a platform that manages the recycling process for brands like Thousand Fell.
It’s worth considering aspects such as designing shoes for longevity, ensuring the ease of dismantling the shoe, and making every component of the shoe immediately recyclable, rather than merely planning for potential future recyclability. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation also emphasizes the significance of circularity, where shoes are kept in circulation through processes such as reuse, refurbishment, and recycling to ensure they don’t end up as waste.
“Be conscious about your materials, and then design for end of life from the outset, and then inform every decision thereafter,” Rebecca Coughlan, the Senior Advocacy Manager of Remake advised.
No Human Rights Trampled
Going even further, the fabric of sustainability is woven with more than just eco-friendly threads. The social component, often overlooked, is equally crucial. Consider Nike: while the brand has made strides in sustainability through its circular design principles and the “Move to Zero” initiative, it still owes 4,600+ Thai and Cambodian workers $2.2 million in stolen wages—and they’ve been waiting three years.
India is one of the largest producers of footwear in the globe. With at least 4.42 million workers engaging in its leather shoe industry alone.
As Coughlan aptly puts it, “The whole social component is huge. Are the makers of shoes paid a living wage? Are these shoes being made under dignified working conditions?”
The Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA) defines shoe sustainability as shoe design, development, manufacturing, distribution, and selling processes that minimize negative environmental impacts, conserve energy and natural resources, are safe for employees, communities and consumers, and are economically sound.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the reality just yet. A recent Arisa report uncovered labor issues in India’s leather shoe supply chain such as poverty wages, occupational health and safety issues, regular overtime, and insufficient formalization of employment relationships. India is one of the largest producers of footwear in the globe. With at least 4.42 million workers engaging in its leather shoe industry alone. Arisa approached 47 footwear brands to review the data and respond to the risks identified—only 9 responded.
Nike…still owes 4,600+ Thai and Cambodian workers $2.2 million in stolen wages.
“Most companies have been focusing on the environmental side and only now are they more so starting to be held accountable for the intersection of social and environmental sustainability,” Coughlan explained.
Next Steps to Take
The rise of greenwashing has led brands to claim eco-friendly practices without substantial evidence, making it increasingly challenging to tell what true sustainability is. There’s growing consumer distrust and misconceptions around the subject as a result. Knowing the complexities that run in the footwear industry, what does this mean for us as consumers?
Coughlan says, “The onus shouldn’t be on a consumer to change the industry through their purchasing processes with shoes… It needs to come from the company.” Companies have huge marketing budgets, which means they can sell us anything, and they have sold us anything and everything. That money and focus need to be reoriented towards changing consumer perspective, Coughlan continues.
“Most companies have been focusing on the environmental side and only now are…starting to be held accountable for the intersection of social and environmental sustainability” – Rebecca Coughlan
To kick things off, marketers and communicators can refer to The Sustainable Communication Fashion Playbook which outlines shared principles and guidance on how to align consumer-facing communication and advance towards the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals.
“Better education, transparency and honesty from the sector as a whole will help to increase awareness and allow consumers to make responsible decisions,” Steiner notes.
Building on transparency, Remake established the Brand Directory where small businesses are featured for their demonstration and progress towards traceability, wages & well-being, commercial practices, raw materials, environmental justice, and/or governance. The directory outlines each brand’s sustainability commitments and progress so if the need for new shoes arise, consumers have a go-to source of footwear brands.
Among the brands listed is Thousand Fell, which offers recyclable vegan sneakers that are designed for end-of-use solutions, allowing customers to return, refurbish, or recycle their shoes. Another is Tentree, which plants ten trees for every item purchased while committing to fair labor practices and establishing a circularity program that encourages resale. Interestingly, these brands show how one can work towards sustainability in multiple ways.
Beyond consumption, Coughlan shared that these brands protest, write to brands, and advocate for stronger legislation, essentially using their roles as ‘active citizens’ rather than their limited role as ‘conscious consumers.’
“Finding a community where you can join together and advocate for systemic change is going to have much more longevity and sustainability in terms of actual things that get done,” Coughlan shared.
Perhaps it’s not good shoes that take us to good places, but systems and communities that enable sustainable footwear.