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Improving Footwear’s Footprint Through Circular Materials & Process Solutions

One of the keys to cracking the code of footwear sustainability is reducing and managing waste. Currently, about 90 percent of shoes end up in landfills, where they begin to break down, but never fully decompose due to the materials used.

This problem informs innovation at insole manufacturer and supplier OrthoLite. “How can we develop true end of life solutions for footwear—focused on product and process—to ensure that we are providing true circular solutions so that footwear has a place to go versus a landfill,” said Kristin Burrows, OrthoLite’s chief brand officer.

During a recent fireside chat with Sourcing Journal features editor Kate Nishimura, Burrows said that one of the challenges of defining end of life for footwear is that shoes are made from materials that don’t break down in landfills because they are built to last. Footwear construction is also incredibly complex; each shoe can contain up to 200 unique components. And each of these materials—from leather to plastics—requires different recycling processes. Given the wide range of materials that are utilized to create footwear, Burrows pointed out that both suppliers and brands should be thinking about the eventual products’ end of life in the product creation process to prevent shoes from going to landfills.

Even though insoles are just a fraction of the total materials that make up a shoe, OrthoLite has been committed to improving the environmental impact of these components for the past quarter century. “Although an insole only makes up a small percentage of the total parts, it’s increasingly critical that you approach each component with the same dedication to being sustainable,” she said.

From the company’s start, OrthoLite insoles have been made with at least 5 percent recycled rubber. Over the years, it has expanded its sustainable offerings, and the manufacturer recently debuted its first midsole foam. Dubbed Cirql, the foam is EVA plastic-free and made from plants. Developed with end of life in mind, Cirql is industrially compostable, creating a “soil-to-soil” solution. While this process is not as simple as throwing one’s shoe in a home composting bin with banana peels, shoes could be returned to a facility to be broken apart so the midsole can be industrially composted.

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Consumers—particularly Gen Z and millennial shoppers—are looking for more sustainable footwear and apparel, but Burrows noted there is room to elevate their education and understanding of sustainability. At the same time, regulations and companies’ own sustainability goals are shaping a more responsible industry, but the terminology and standards vary.

“We have to quickly figure out a set of consistent standards around what we’re targeting, and how we’re defining that, so that we can also be honest and transparent with the consumer about what is sustainable and what isn’t, and really get rid of a lot of the misinformation and greenwashing that’s out there,” she said.

Click the image above to watch the video to hear more about OrthoLite’s green developments and why circularity is crucial for footwear.