One word rang out loud and clear across the footwear industry throughout 2019.
As anxieties about climate change mount exponentially with each passing month, sustainability has become the focus of a sector that has often relied on fleeting trends and manufactured hype to push product.
The environmental issues surrounding fast fashion have become impossible to ignore, and a new generation of consumers threatens to kick the industry’s bad actors and slow adopters to the curb faster than a meme-obsessed teen can say, “OK, Boomer.”
Throughout 2019, footwear brands have adapted to changing consumer standards, adopting new materials and processes that have the potential to completely revolutionize the space.
Sourcing Journal has rounded up the materials and components that made their mark in 2019—and could prove to be the catalysts for change in 2020.
Known for being one of the least sustainable components of athletic footwear, foam midsoles are most commonly EVA or TPU-based—meaning they come from non-renewable polymers, just like plastic bottles.
Mississippi-based startup Bloom has found a true life hack in harnessing the biological strengths of one of the world’s most renewable and pollution-capturing resources: algae.
Bloom’s foam compounds are comprised of varying amounts of algae biomass, which are combined with traditional foam-making compounds like EVA. While the organic substance doesn’t completely replace the polymer foam, it acts as a filler, dramatically reducing the amount of EVA that needs to be incorporated.
Adding to its sustainable profile, naturally occurring algae blooms thrive in areas where CO2 emissions are high, so it’s grown to offset carbon emissions around power plants and other industrial facilities.
Footwear wunderkind AllBirds has also cracked the code when it comes to bio-based replacements. The company’s SweetFoam midsole is derived from sugarcane grown in southern Brazil, which the company said is sustained by rainwater instead of irrigation. The material is processed in plants run entirely on renewable power.
After two years of research and development, the brand launched its proprietary foam in 2018 in the form of a flip-flop. The company has claimed that SweetFoam is the world’s first carbon-negative EVA, and has offered up the technology to the industry at large.
In November, AllBirds co-founder Joey Zwillinger penned a scorching open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on Medium.com, thoughtfully excoriating the tech titan for ripping off the footwear brand’s immensely popular Wool Runner. Zwillinger urged Bezos to steal AllBirds’ sustainability profile—not just its designs.
Of the SweetFoam green EVA material, he said, “You can use it. We want you to use it,” adding, “If you replaced the oil-based products in your supply chain with this natural substitute (not just for one product, but all of them), we could jointly make a major dent in the fight against climate change.”
With Amazon’s immense scale, Zwillinger argued that the cost of the sustainable material would come down for all its users—allowing for even greater adoption across the industry.
While leather is universally coveted for its richness and durability, animal advocates and environmentalists alike have decried the industry’s overuse of the popular material.
Throughout recent seasons, many brands have turned to third-party auditing groups like the Leather Working Group, which certifies and ranks tanneries across the globe based on strict set of ecological guidelines.
Some direct-to-consumer brands are eschewing animal-derived products altogether, though, and seeking to make vegan leather—once characterized by stiff, sticky (and environmentally harmful) plastics—a viable and sustainable reality.
Veja, the sneaker brand popularized by It Girls like Meghan Markle and Emma Watson, released its Campo sneaker in January, using a man-made vegan leather made from canvas and corn.
The sneaker’s uppers are comprised of the proprietary material, dubbed C.W.L.
A 50 percent bio-based coating (made from corn waste taken from the food industry mixed with polyurethane) is applied to waxed canvas, creating a material with a smooth, supple texture not unlike natural leather.
Veja isn’t the only brand using discarded foodstuffs to replace animal hides.
Sustainable man-made leather company Piñatex has partnered with the likes of Hugo Boss, James and Co., H&M and even most recently, Chanel, on footwear and apparel products. The company’s non-woven material is derived from pineapple leaves which are coated with various finishes, ranging from natural leather dupes to bright, shiny metallics.
Named one of the most sustainable companies in the world by Dow Jones in 2018, Adidas doubled down on its mission to harvest and reuse ocean plastics in its flyknit uppers this year—and announced plans to expand the effort to the materials in its apparel lines.
The active brand’s celebrated partnership with Parley for the Oceans, which launched in 2017, yielded 6 million pairs of shoes containing recycled ocean plastic over the first two years alone. In 2019, the brand committed to nearly doubling those efforts and producing 11 million pairs of upcycled kicks.
Perhaps most important, though, Adidas’ efforts to sideline virgin plastics in favor of post-consumer polymer waste have caught the eyes of consumers and competitors. The internationally coveted brand’s commitment to using only recycled plastics in its products by 2024 could set new table stakes for the industry at large.
Sustainable startup Oliver Cabell pulled a page out of the Adidas playbook in August, with the launch of its machine washable Phoenix casual sneaker for men and women. Each 3D printed shoe is made from a melted down, re-spun yarn derived from roughly seven plastic bottles.
Launched earlier this month, Reebok’s Forever FloatRide Grow sneaker looks to the natural world for inspiration. The runner’s textile upper is made from a breathable, biodegradable weave derived from the fibers of eucalyptus trees.
In May, AllBirds launched its take on the ballet flat with a sock-like silhouette made with Tencel lyocell, a cellulosic fiber derived from eucalyptus trees. The feminine Tree Breezers were a sharp departure from the Silicon Valley startup’s signature slip-ons and sneakers. In four limited-edition color ways, the delicate flats are both breathable and machine washable, the brand said.