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Market for Footwear Polyurethane Shrank This Year—Here’s What Could Threaten Growth

As brands answer the consumer call for eco-friendly footwear, sustainable alternatives could dampen growth in the market for polyurethane, a shoe sole staple ingredient.

Valued at $4.2 billion in 2019, the market for polyurethane (PU) used in footwear is expected to expand by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.6 percent by 2024, according to a MarketsandMarkets report, up from the firm’s 4.9 percent CAGR forecast published in 2018.

However, over the past year, the polyurethane market has contracted from $4.55 billion to $4.2 billion, according to MarketsandMarkets estimates.

One possible explanation for the $350 million dip may have to do with the fact that footwear brands have caught on to the fact that making foam sucks and contributes to petroleum industry profits which, in turn, contributes to climate change. As the greening of footwear manufacturing continues, shoe brands are eschewing PU for environmentally friendly alternative materials like algae-based foam.

Still, as long as tough, rubbery polyurethane remains one of the cheapest, strongest materials that can be used to make footwear outsoles, the component won’t be fading from the industry anytime soon.

“The use of polyurethane in footwear offers superior properties such as high mechanical strength, which makes shoes robust and durable,” the report read. “It can be used for different types of shoes such as sports, leisure, slippers & sandals, work, and safety. PU sole (footwear polyurethane) is finding increased use in various footwear types such as sports, leisure, work and safety, and slippers and sandals.”

Back in 2018, MarketsandMarkets predicted that slippers and sandals would drive growth category for PU sole materials. However, as fashion footwear continues to cede ground to sport-inspired styles like sneakers, the firm now believes casual footwear will be the largest footwear segment in the PU sole market. This is likely due to the continued growth of the segment in countries like India and China, MarketsandMarkets said.

The Asia-Pacific region is expected to be the largest market for PU over the next five years, where China is expected to lead in demand.

The growth of the casual market has much to do with its versatility, according to the report, as consumers are increasingly looking for footwear that can provide a “wide range of performance,” such as loafers, sneakers and flats. PU sole is seeing increased use in multiple segments, including boots, formal footwear, slippers and sandals, as well, MarketsandMarkets added.