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Here’s How Footwear Can Stop Committing ‘Environmental Malpractice’

Experts well versed in sustainably producing shoes convened Friday at ComunityMade’s Clean Footwear Summit to discuss challenges in the footwear supply chain.

Stuart Jenkins, co-founder and CEO of footwear foam manufacturer Blumaka, pointed to the 24 billion pairs of shoes made each year and 20 billion sold. “There’s 4 billion pairs of shoes that are doing nothing but adding to our carbon footprint, wasting raw materials and sucking up resources,” he said.

“The industry is going to have to deal with this reality and figure out how to make fewer products, or the right number of products—and what we are going to do at the end of life for these shoes,” Jenkins continued, adding that the industry can no longer rely on planet-polluting materials such as virgin plastic. “The benefit of plastic is that it lasts a long time, and the downside of plastic is it lasts a long time. You’ve got to use it for as long as possible, as many times as possible, before you throw it away.”

Jenkins, whose company develops foam soles using post-production waste from footwear factories, believes the sector should focus on sustainable and recycled materials that don’t sacrifice performance. “We going to get to the point where we say, ‘Using virgin foam to make a flip-flop or a casual shoe is environmental malpractice,’” he said. “It’s not being as thoughtful as we could be.”

ComunityMade founder Sean Scott, a veteran of Nike, Vans and Toms, saw the footwear industry’s social and environmental misdeeds up close over his career.

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“I saw underage labor, and labor that wasn’t well taken care of,” he said. “I saw clear environmental abuses, like bright green-colored liquids getting dumped into a river that people were drinking and playing in.” Companies prioritized profits over responsibility, effectively “shortchanging people and the planet,” Scott said.

Scott and wife Shannon Scott responded by co-founding ComunityMade, a Los Angeles brand, footwear design studio and production facility. “I started thinking about what it would be like to have shoes made nearby,” he said. Domestic manufacturing enables agile production and speed to market while on-demand minimizes waste and saves money. “It starts to make a lot more sense from a business, human and planet perspective to be building things closer to where we are,” Scott pointed out.

Josh Katz embraced a similar ethos when founding knit footwear and apparel production center KX Inc., which completed construction on its L.A. facility earlier this month. “It’s no accident that we built our first facility here in Los Angeles,” he said. “It’s where I’m from and it is, in a lot of ways, the epicenter of some of the most exciting, progressive things that are happening in footwear.”

KX develops 3D-knitted footwear uppers and apparel using 98 percent recycled PET that’s melted down, pelletized and extruded into yarns from post-consumer plastic bottles. Uppers knit to their specified shape leave behind no cutting room scraps to be landfilled or incinerated. With KX, Katz aims to show brands that domestic production is possible.

“By bringing people and products closer together, our hope is to speed up the time it takes to develop a product,” he said. The process will “not only be more efficient, but create less waste—whether it’s wasted time, wasted Zoom calls, wasted DHL packages going back and forth from facilities, or wasted airplane tickets.”

Katz said challenges born from the pandemic spurred him to quickly get his business off the ground. “There’s an urgency to this issue, taking into account the context of the past couple of years,” he said, citing the sharp swings in consumer demand and ongoing problems in the global supply chain. “It has only created more of a need for what we’re doing.”

More brands are taking on outside help as they reevaluate their supply chains, according to Todd Copeland of Copeland Consultancy. A former material chemist who helped Patagonia develop its sustainable supply chain for more than a decade, Copeland said his experience as a consultant revealed that “a lot of companies don’t really know their supply chain that well.”

Copeland said a materiality assessment pinpoints the most prominent supply chain “hot spots” that brands can use to measure and mitigate impacts by changing material sourcing or improving factory efficiency.

However, the consultant believes many footwear companies are focusing on limiting their carbon footprints by curbing greenhouse gas emissions instead of adopting renewable energy and optimizing manufacturing processes.

Copeland also believes companies should reevaluate their business models. “I don’t know if we can really keep making and selling stuff and reduce the GHG emissions to the level that we need to avoid a climate catastrophe,” he said, urging shoe companies to tackle overproduction and make durable, repairable goods. “These things are really important, but it’s difficult—it’s a big nut to crack.”

Localizing production offers a quick way to sharply cut the emissions generated by moving product around the globe. And while the footwear industry relies on specialized parts and pieces primarily produced overseas, ComunityMade’s Scott believes a commitment to developing the space will encourage more brands to consider manufacturing closer to home.

“It’s not going to be easy—it’s going to take some investment from these suppliers, with a little bit of risk, no doubt,” he said. “But I do think it’s easier now than it was a few years ago.”

Scott pointed to “a clear movement” toward nearshoring. To make a stateside footwear supply chain a reality, “we’re all going to have to keep hustling,” he said.