We Are Running Out Of Time To Solve Our Footwear Problem

We Are Running Out Of Time To Solve Our Footwear Problem

This is a modified transcript from Brent Jame’s keynote presentation at the Footwear Innovation Summit. 

To be 100% sustainable the shoe in its pure form should be easily recycled.  Expecting to produce footwear that is truly sustainable and easy to recycle is mostly unrealistic today.  It is our job as footwear experts to identify where we can reduce waste, avoid landfills and develop materials with the smallest impact to the environment.

This is especially true as footwear consumption is to increase as outlined in a recent article that I was interviewed for in Business Insider.  Now is the time to act yet for many the solutions seem so far removed.

When I hear the word “technology” in reference to footwear at times I feel uncomfortable as our production methods seem far from advanced technology. It was only a few years ago that the majority of athletic shoes had over 400 people touching some aspect of the product during the manufacturing process.  In the last 8 years our industry has started to advance production and manufacturing with knitted uppers, welding, improved foams. I see tremendous opportunity to advance the technology in production and manufacturing.  

The True Cost Of Footwear

It seems we need to remind ourselves that making product is making garbage due the inherent consumption of energy and resources when we make anything. Besides the obvious waste created from the consumer and the end of its use, there is still a tremendous amount of waste created by shoes that simply don’t ever sell.

Most products, especially footwear, do not have a clear circular cycle yet. Meaning, material and energy resources are retained as our products are refurbished, renewed, or regenerated. 

This fact alone articulates our overproduction problem. The footwear industry produces 23.5 Billion pairs of shoes annually for 7.6 Billion people in the world. 

According to Webster’s Dictionary,  sustainability is defined as a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse. 

How does the Footwear Industry use the word sustainability? 

The short answer is that it is widely used for marketing and for the most part, no brand is obtaining anything close to a sustainable product.  Without a doubt, we should all be focused on continuous improvement for the consumer, for profits and for the environment. Depending on the organization you or I work for the importance or rank of these three at times trump the others.

We should establish standards and thresholds for what is sustainable.  Many of us are aware of “green washing” We must all remind ourselves that making product is making waste, especially when that product cannot be repaired, resoled to be used year over year.  Our industry is aware there is a sustainable trend. WGSN reported that there has been a 66% increase in searches for sustainable fashion.  Consumers are desiring sustainable fashion and footwear however past data suggests that we are resistant to paying the higher prices to produce sustainable products.  In our industry we could suggest that the sneaker resale market is sustainable however this is buoyed by collectors who purchase more sneakers than they could actually wear. 

Lets keep diving into what is and how we define sustainability.

Vivobarefoot markets that they uses 50% plant based materials to make their shoes with a goal of being 90%. That is really impressive.  Does using plant based materials actually make their product biodegradable or circular? No… Sugar Cane, Algae and other organic materials are replacing petrol chemicals with Bio Chemicals… Using plant based materials is great in theory.  

The process of producing plant based materials is as energy laden as using a petrol base. Is that sustainable? 

Is using food crops to produce non-edible items good for our globe?

Why are the farmers in Iowa against turning the corn that they harvest into Ethanol? 

 Many farmers feel that corn would be better used to feed people in the world or livestock. It’s complicated and the world is full of compromises.  I am excited to see brands using these alternatives… What is the post result after the shoe has been discarded?

Who is primarily responsible to make change, the consumer or the Brand?

Consumer’s Responsibility For Sustainability 

Marketplaces (Amazon, Alibaba & JD) have changed the consumers expectations and shopping habits. Now consumers want and expect to place an order from anywhere and have it delivered the next day, sometimes even the same day.  The carbon footprint is horrible. This also allows for one to mindlessly consume having something delivered and then decide to return it creating an even worse carbon footprint.

Will consumers realize the impact of their new expectations and shopping habits?  History has shown that humans have weak self-control who are following the easiest path forward

Brands Responsibility For Sustainability 

In the last Conference in LA. The question was posed whose responsibility is it the Consumer or the brand… OF the 4 panelists all but one said the Brand… Primarily I think because a brand can take a position and have an affect (leadership),  where consumers as I said before are mostly followers.

So one perspective…. Should consumers actually own the products that are actually recyclable, clothes, shoes, furniture, phones, cars…etc?  Should they not be leased and then required to be returned when the expired date is reached?

I am sure your brain is spinning on the actual logistics of such an idea….

One of the most important movements that must take place is what happens to the product after the consumer stops using the product… mostly from lack of interest vs it being worn out beyond use.  Collecting or depositing discarded product in the proper place for it to be recycled is critical… We need to work with organizations that take on the task of receiving discarded products (I am speaking of clothing and footwear in this case) or determine if the product first can be cleaned up and reused by someone else.  If they are truly worn out, then ideally the product would be disassembled so it will more properly be recycled based on material type. These organizations actually already exist in the USA, Goodwill, Salvation Army or Soles for Souls. What our industry needs to do is make a properly proportioned contribution based on the # of pairs they produce to support these organizations. 

Durability and Reliability  As A Sustainability Strategy 

I have a pair of Merrill Hiking Boots, Made in Italy. I wore these boots on the Pacific Crest Trail and submitted over 15 mountains over 10,000 feet (3,500 meters).  They have been re-soled 2 times. Would you consider these sustainable? Shouldn’t making things better and having them last longer be part of the sustainability discussion?  Designing footwear that can be resoled is a concept we should reconsider.

In the fast fashion apparel world two large brands participate in 2 main sustainable conferences (one in Hong Kong and the other in Copenhagen). These fashion brands have identified the critical issue of using blended fabrics and how blended fabrics make recycling much more challenging. So should we then stop blending materials? 

Furthermore, one of these giant fast fashion companies has touted being a sustainability leader  but have recently burned over 12 tonnes of unsold products. Did you know it has been reported that 84 percent of all unwanted clothes end up in landfills, according to Newsweek?. Collection of discarded garments is still one of the biggest obstacles.  

Footwear is much more difficult in every way. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Americans throw away at least 300 million pairs of shoes each year. These shoes end up in landfills, where they can take 30 to 40 years to decompose. Ethylene Vinyl Acetate, which usually makes up the midsole of most running shoes, can last for as long as 1,000 years in a landfill.

Another organization that is elevating the narrative is the Ellen Macarther Foundation…. They are doing a great job of elevating the conversation, inspiring us all to think deeper and me more mindful and finally offer approaches to put enlightened strategies in place.

Continuous improvement is good but are we looking at the right solutions?

So what are the steps to start moving to a circular lifecycle approach?  there are several things to consider.

1.A single material 

Adidas recently marketed approach of using one material (TPU) is a positive step, but what isn’t explained is the challenge of the various sub formulas of TPU used as the base chemical. For instance the midsole material has a blowing agent in it that couldn’t be used in making thread for knitting…. Furthermore, we need to be able to use more than just 10% of the cost consumer shoe in the next new shoe… It would be much more significant if we could say 50% or more is made from the prior shoe.

2.Regenerated materials 

New materials made mostly of post consumer waste.  Though plastic bottles are being transformed into polyester materials, we must have a clear path to traceability of the feedstock. Moving beyond polyester however there are other plastics, leather, EVA, PU and rubber which are all common materials used in footwear.  A micro amount of these materials are re-used and mostly postindustrial and not postconsumer. Any recycling is great but currently it is microscopic of a percentage of new products being made.

3.Modular constructions

Making footwear that the various components can be replaced when worn out, resoled or just snapped together. A modular system makes for easier deconstruction for downcycling.

4.Changing the ownership of the product

The brand is the owner of the product and the customer leasese it. With the brand taking ownership of their products, they are then responsible for down cycling the product after use.

5.Landfill Diversion

One of the biggest barriers to having a successful circular approach is that of preventing shoes from going into landfills. We need an easy way to collect discarded shoes.  The first thing that comes to mind in America is Goodwill or Salvation Army. They already have a vast network of collection areas. Our industry (led by Nike) contracts with these organizations. They first evaluate the reusability of what was collected. Could these be passed to those in need? If the shoe is really not usable then can we do some of the reprocessing with their organization to make recycling more effective?  Maybe even they sort and separate the materials, grind them for bulk shipment to be reused.

Closing Thoughts

I am a passionate shoe dog worried about our industries level of responsibility. The footwear industry is currently far from a sustainable industry. Let’s start with stopping the use of new plastic.Let’s all be responsible for the products we make/  We all must contribute towards the true cost of our products. We need to band together as an industry and at the very lease collect our discarded footwear and figure out how to effectively recycle footwear products so as to prevent them from going to landfill.