Starting Off on the Right Foot with Optimal Choices for Shoes
The eco-fashion revolution is upon us. Most major retail chains and high-fashion houses alike now produce at least some of their collections from sustainable, preferred fibers, and have been educating consumers about the best ways to maintain and dispose of them; the footwear industry has been slower to adapt to the trend. This is problematic and presents a great obstacle in fashion’s journey toward sustainability, especially given the incredible popularity of shoes today. Nike alone sells 25 pairs of trainers every second, and an estimated 24 billion pairs of shoes are made each year globally.
Creating sustainable footwear, however, is not an easy process. Unlike garments, shoes contain far more different materials per product and undergo a comparatively arduous production process to create a product that is both comfortable and stylish. With leathers, plastics, rubber, adhesives and other knitted fabrics, sustainably disposing of shoes at the end of their useful life is no small feat either. Thankfully, this is all changing, as new developments in footwear production, spearheaded by both the world’s largest shoe manufacturers and innovative new start-ups, are now gaining widespread popularity and are becoming increasingly available at attainable price points and with great comfort and style.
At the height of the sustainable footwear trend is the influx of using forward-thinking materials and new sustainably mindful production processes. An example would be French sneaker brand Veja, made famous by celebrities such as Emma Watson, which tends to sell its shoes for less than high-end brand sneakers (i.e. Nike and Adidas), whilst offering the benefits of bigger-brand alternatives and being environmentally responsible. Starting with the sole, Veja uses 30 percent-40 percent natural rubber sourced directly from the Amazon forest, saving an estimated 120,000 hectares of Amazonian land since 2004. One in four Veja designs are also completely vegan, and where it can, the brand upcycles to avoid overburdening global waste disposal.
Also, the upcycling process has now become a great means by which shoes can become more environmentally friendly, too, with niche brands leading these eco-innovations and enabling the repurposing of a substantial range of otherwise wasted products. Rothy, as U.S. sustainable shoe brand, has developed a new range of shoes featuring an upper made entirely from upcycled coffee grounds for instance; and British shoe manufacturer Vivobarefoot uses algae biomass, harvested from freshwater sources around the world, to create a specialized form of rubber shoes for everyday wear and sports. Using algae can help clean up the world’s waterways in addition to avoiding the use of traditional, petroleum-based rubber. A new sustainable shoe brand, Ecoalf not only uses algae, but also upcycles plastic bottles and produces a simplified design without the need for complex materials. Ecoalf estimates that it has removed around 250 tons of waste materials since the program began in 2015. Upcycled materials are a great way to ensure waste is routed away from landfills to serve a new useful purpose.
No conversation about environmentally friendly shoes is complete without a mention about Allbirds. The international footwear brand has reached incredible popularity, especially tapping the business wear casual revolution that workplaces around the world are experiencing today. Since 2016, Allbirds has produced 100 prcent environmentally friendly shoes, dubbed by many as the world’s most comfortable sneakers. The brand’s “Tree Shoe collection” is made with sustainably produced botanic fibers, sourced from 100 percent renewable forests. These specialized fibers also offer superior breathability and moisture management, which contribute to their comfort. And unlike other sustainable fibers, such as recycled polyester, botanic fibers used in the “Tree Shoe collection” are compostable and do not harm our environment at their end of life.
Producing shoes from sustainable and upcycled materials is only half the story. Another question still remains: What to do with all of these sneakers when they are no longer used? Adidas is one company taking reusability to the next level by introducing the concept of the Futurecraft.Loop, an Ultraboost like sneaker created from a single 100 percent reusable material that intends to be zero waste. Adidas intends for the shoe to be collected at the end of its life. The TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) materials that form the sneaker can be ground into pellets and melted back into a material that can be used in a brand-new pair of shoes. In other words, there will never be any waste from the product. Nothing gets thrown away in the end.
Unfortunately, the complex design and material list of a vast majority of the world’s footwear still means that recycling most designs can be a challenge. Major brands are tackling the challenge head on however, by launching dedicated shoe recycling programs such as Nike’s “Reuse-A-Shoe Program” and Vagabond’s “Shoe Bring Back,” which help create consumer awareness and disassemble each part of an old shoe to be recycled in the most efficient and useful way. These programs, alongside innovative new materials and production processes, are turning the traditional footwear industry on its head, and paving the way for simpler, kinder and more environmentally responsible shoes that will give back to, rather than take away from, our environment.
Birgit Schnetzlinger, is Business Manager Footwear, Lenzing AG. She is responsible for the development of the footwear segment in Lenzing, a world market leader for sustainable botanic cellulose fibers such as TENCEL™ branded lyocell fibers. Lenzing’s fibers are derived from renewable wood sources and processed with unique resource-conserving technologies. Unique physical properties of TENCEL™ fibers contribute to their great strength, efficient moisture absorption and gentleness to skin.