Often made from synthetic rubber, nylon, polyester and other synthetic materials, footwear leaves behind a large environmental footprint. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, 300 million pairs of shoes that get thrown out every year end up in landfills.
And now fast-fashion players, derided for flooding the world with cheap apparel that often doesn’t get worn, are “creeping into the footwear space,” commented Stuart McCullough, managing director of the The Woolmark Company, which recently partnered with Los Angeles-based Athletic Propulsion Labs (APL) on what’s billed as the first technical-knit shoe to hit the global market with the wool certification trademark.
“As consumers are becoming increasingly aware of how and where their product is made, we will start to move away from a throw-away sneaker culture, with consumers making more considered, responsible purchases,” McCullough predicted.
“We need to develop a different narrative about waste with our customers,” agreed Frank Zambrelli, chairman of the Accessories Council, an international trade organization,
Meanwhile, the athletic footwear industry is tackling the problem via innovation. For example, “knit uppers eliminate textile waste, while outsole and midsole regrinds are extending the life of the materials we use,” Zambrelli noted.
According to McCullough, Adidas, Baabuk, Giesswein, Le Mouton, Z Zegna and Neeman’s, from India, are among brands that recently introduced wool sport shoes. And its supply-chain partners have developed technically advanced yarns feasible for the upper, inner and liner of shoes that are also machine-washable.
“Historically, runners used to be a cut-and-sew product. All of a sudden, they’re now knitting them, so that it’s knitted in one piece with minimal seams. That has been made possible because wool is so readily used on a knitting machine, allowing us to get wool into products such as footwear,” he said. ” I’ve got a couple of pairs and I love them.”
In 2012, Nike debuted its Flyknit running shoe, made from recycled PET, and Adidas released its Primeknit shoe, which according to the brand, results in zero waste. Since then, the two sneaker giants have made strides in product innovation by converting waste into wearables.
“We are long past the time when sustainability was seen as something contrary to business success,” noted Noel Kinder, chief sustainability officer at Nike and a 19-year veteran of the brand. The American sporting goods giant has helped lead the conversation for over a decade, weaving sustainability into its business by integrating it into the product creation process which “allows us to ensure sustainable innovation is a core part of our work across the company, including every brand, every category and every new product,” he asserted.
According to Kinder, 75 percent of all Nike products contain recycled material—that includes everything from yarns and trims, along with some of its most premium jerseys and shoes. In the footwear category, Kinder points to the Air Max 720, which has 75 percent of its sole made from manufacturing waste, and the VaporMax air sole, which also contains more than 75 percent recycled manufacturing waste. “It [VaperMax] has allowed Nike to completely remove the need for a foam mid-sole, reducing our environmental impact even further.”
Another innovation is Nike Flyleather, made from at least 50 percent leather fiber, which Kinder said, “was developed out of a challenge to evolve leather into a more sustainable performance material.”
Waste management is crucial, and Kinder said, “we believe every gram of materials sourced to make Nike products should be put to good use, so we’re strengthening our recycling capabilities, working to design waste out of our products, and optimizing manufacturing processes to eliminate as much waste as possible.”
For example, Nike’s Air Manufacturing Innovation facilities—where the vast majority of air soles are made—divert over 95 percent of manufacturing waste from landfills. Kinder says that amounts to “53 million pounds of materials, the equivalent of 10 Olympic-size swimming pools in one year.”
Kinder noted Nike’s goal is to reach 100 percent renewable energy in its owned or operated facilities by the end of 2025 and “encourage broader adoption in our supply chain, as part of our effort to control absolute emissions.
The brand shares a Sustainable Business Report every two years, most recently in May 2018 and according to Kinder, “Transparency is key to making progress against our key priorities and driving the industry forward. For a company of our size and scope, it’s critical that we think about the leadership we can take for our industry and how we do it at scale.”
Adidas is also focusing its efforts on low-waste initiatives. In 2013, Adidas debuted the Element Voyager shoe made from 12 parts instead of the usual 30, decreasing shoe waste by 500 grams.
“As part of our first priority, it’s our ultimate ambition to replace all virgin plastics in our products. We aim to use 100 percent recycled polyester in every product and on every application where a solution exists by 2024,” said a spokesperson for the brand, who also highlighted that its new apparel range already contains 41 percent recycled polyester.
To tackle the marine plastic pollution problem, Adidas partnered with Parley for the Oceans, an environmental organization, in 2015 and re-engineered ocean plastic waste and fishing nets into fibers for performance sportswear. Their aim is to replace regular plastic with Parley plastic.
According to Adidas, this is one of its most successful upcycling initiatives and the brand adapted the innovation into other categories such as apparel in 2016 and swimwear in 2017.
Smaller footwear brands are doing their part. French label Veja manufactures sneakers from three key materials: Bmesh, agro-ecological cotton and wild rubber.
Bmesh, which is used in uppers, is woven from fibers made from 100 percent recycled plastic bottles. Material used in the canvas and lining of their shoes are made from upcycled cotton waste and soles are produced from wild rubber trees that are bled, not cut, contributing to the preservation of Amazonian forests, according to the company.
London-based shoe designer Beatrix Ong manufactures shoes with a vulcanized, recycled rubber sole and insoles made from bamboo and charcoal.
“With footwear, waste happens before the shoes hit the shop floor — even the smallest imperfection means a shoe will be thrown away because of the way it’s constructed. Acres of material go to waste; our aim is to make use of what’s already there,” said Ong, whose shoes can be deconstructed, so that when a component breaks, it can be replaced without having to toss out the entire shoe.
According to the accessories council’s Zambrelli, the industry still needs to figure out what to do with the massive amount of shoes going to landfills. That could be “the next big idea that will change our industry, and spawn new business models,” he said.
“The other powerful issue is the separation of ownership across the full value chain of footwear. Raw material suppliers are isolated financially from manufacturers, who are in turn not owned by brands, many of which still count wholesale as a their principal channel of distribution,” he said. “Once businesses recognize the opportunity for cost reduction, consumer growth and the reduction of material business risks, change will accelerate. Profit is a powerful lever.”