From material innovations to supply chain refinements, along with recycling and upcycling initiatives for post-consumer waste, brands are forging their own paths based around the issues that align with their values.
The clear end goal is to waste less and reduce environmental impact, but the road to true sustainability is rocky and yet unpaved.
Part of the reason it’s so hard to fully grasp the scope of the issue—and to measure improvement—is because there’s a dearth of real data surrounding footwear waste.
Michael Sadowski, a Nike veteran and contributor to industry leading environmental consultancies like SustainAbility and the World Resources Institute, said waste characterization studies (which measure the composition of landfill garbage) lump footwear in with textiles like apparel and home linens. That makes it hard to figure out how many shoes are actually ending up in the dump once their pavement-pounding days are done.
“When people talk about footwear and apparel waste going to landfills, I don’t want to de-prioritize it, but it’s not as big as other categories,” he said, citing a 2017 study from New York City’s Department of Sanitation. Textile matter accounted for 6 percent of the city’s overall waste, with footwear making up an unknown fraction of that figure.
“About a third of the waste in New York City is organics, or food waste. That dwarfs what’s going into landfills from a textile standpoint,” Sadowski explained. “It’s helpful context, though it doesn’t diminish the importance—or the fact that maybe that impact is growing.”
To many brands and consumers, that impact—or the idea of it—matters a lot. Whether it’s because the idea of shoes stacking up in landfills is more emotionally resonant than data about factory water usage or carbon emissions, Sadowski is unsure.
“When I’m done with my shoe and I throw it away and it ends up in a landfill, yes, it will decompose and emit CO2 over its lifetime in that landfill. But that’s not significant when compared with the production of those materials,” he insisted. “Chemistry impacts happen in the supply chain. In general, from a footwear perspective, we should be most concerned with what’s going on upstream.”
Closing the loop
Still, post-consumer recycling and reuse programs have become one of the industry’s latest sustainability pushes. Footwear brands like Insecta have invested in “closed-loop” programs, which allow customers to send back their worn shoes so that the company can recycle their components.
“Everything is transformed into new insoles and soles not just for us, but for the footwear industry in general,” explained Barbara Mattivy, the brand’s founder and CEO.
Mattivy points to the “slew of nasty chemicals found within the glues, rubbers and even leather materials used to manufacture shoes” as the reason that post-consumer footwear waste should be taken seriously. Those chemical compounds leach into soil and are released into the air, impacting the surrounding ecology and atmosphere.
“That’s why it’s so important for companies to offer a closed loop system, so customers can send the shoes back to brands and they won’t go to waste or landfills,” she explained.
Sadowski agreed that one of the biggest challenges in tackling post-consumer footwear waste is the fact that shoes can be made up of many materials. Up to 40 different components can be used to form a shoe, and a good quality one is built to take a beating.
“Athletic shoes, for example, are designed to stay together—to run marathons, to play basketball, or skate,” he said. “You don’t want things coming apart, but if you want to recycle them, you do need to deconstruct them.”
Designing products with end of life in mind is one way brands can address waste.
“Generally speaking, you should have fewer materials,” he said. “You should minimize blends, which cause issues with recycling. You should be able to pull things apart easily when you’re done.”
Separating EVA foams from rubber outsoles and leather uppers would allow each of those components to be dealt with separately, and some of them could be recycled or reused.
“Design for disassembly is something that I’m passionate about,” agreed Chris Enlow, Keen’s corporate responsibility director. He admitted, though, that the outdoor brand’s efforts in that arena are in their infancy.
“We’re just being practical realists knowing the supply chain we’re in. We’re more or less still working in a 20th century model of sending the shoes out the door and hoping that they last consumers a long time,” he explained. “But we’re realizing that we need to be considering designing for disassembly or re-soling.”
“Sometimes just the thoughtfulness in how you build things from a durability standpoint really helps mitigate waste,” added Kirk Richardson, Keen’s sustainability expert. Many of the brand’s styles last 10-plus years with their original outsoles, he said, adding that re-soling could lengthen the product’s lifespan even further.
Over the past five years, Keen has been on a “detox journey” to clean up production practices that might harm the environment. The brand has focused heavily on its supply chain, working with Leather Working Group-certified tanneries and factory partners that promise to conserve water and carbon. Keen has also invested in new technology to optimize pattern efficiency, so that valuable scraps of leather and other materials don’t go to waste.
While keeping a laser focus on their upstream operations, the brand has also branched out to explore material innovations—particularly ones that would improve a product’s environmental impact at the end of its life cycle.
Richardson explained that the polyurethane and EVA foams (used primarily in active shoe midsoles) are probably the last thing to break down in a landfill, aside from “minerals like aluminum, steel and tin,” that might be used on a hook or lace loop.
“We’re trying to explore things within our products that can inherently break down,” Enlow added. He explained that Keen has been working with the Stewart Group, a material innovations firm, on integrating a bio-based foam into their shoes.
The material, called Bounce, is an organic compound derived from corn and soybean plants. In Keen’s case, Bounce will act as a stand-in for a polyurethane-based midsole. The brand plans on releasing a select number of styles using Bounce in the next three months.
“It’s an enormous shift, and something we’re really psyched about,” Richardson said, explaining that Keen has been testing bio-based solutions for the past two-and-a-half years, and trying to ensure that the compound’s durability lives up to brand standards.
Ideally, Enlow said, when the shoe’s life is over, the midsole foam would become compostable under certain conditions, instead of sitting in a landfill indefinitely.
“If we could build confidence in scale, then you could see it becoming the alternative to polyurethane,” Enlow continued. “Dare to dream. Things might be bio-based in the next 10 years.”
Footwear’s sustainable future
Sadowski opined that the best footwear brands are the ones that are taking a holistic view on sustainability—those that are “thinking about how to optimize the full footprint of a product,” from supply chain through end of life.
“There does need to be significant innovation around certain types of materials,” he added, agreeing that polyurethane and EVA compounds are a major culprit.
And even though the research, development and implementation of these innovations can be costly, “reducing waste inherently saves money,” Sadowski insisted. “If you can find materials that perform better, cost less or have a neutral impact on the bottom line, and people are willing to pay for them, then you’ve hit on something.”
Asked about Adidas’ Parley for the Oceans partnership, Sadowski said, “All brands pick something that works, and Parley has captivated a lot of people outside of and within that company.”
“There’s demand for it. It’s created a good story, and it’s hit at the right time,” he added. “There’s so much interest in ocean plastic. That sort of thing drives brand benefits and drives sales.”
While brands like Adidas, H&M, Nike, and others are certainly making improvements across the board, Sadowski believes “brands need to have focal points that allow them to engage meaningfully with consumers. There is a lot of great work happening in the supply chain, but its smart from a brand perspective to become known for something that matters to them.”
That consumer interest is an integral part of moving the overall sustainability mission forward, especially in the absence of regulation around the issue.
“Today, there’s no forcing mechanism for brands to go down this path in a real way,” Sadowski lamented.
“The UK is proposing a tax on items sold, and France has proposed no more burning of excess inventory—a common practice in the industry. But no one has said ‘OK, whatever you produce, you have to take responsibility for. You have to take back everything that you sell and find a non-landfill pathway for it.’”
Along with unsatisfactory regulatory oversight, Keen’s Enlow believes a huge hindrance to progress is a lack of cooperation within the industry. It’s the only way to tackle such an immense, multi-faceted issue, he said.
“That’s what frustrates me the most: we all live on one planet. There’s a shift happening in how we’re buying and using things. We’re willing to talk about the hiccups and bumps. We’ll show you the places in our supply chain that we’re not happy with—our goal is just to bring people along on the journey with us,” he said.
“We don’t shy away from problems. Instead, we try to help empower different groups along our supply chain to do better,” Enlow added.
Richardson agrees that brands across the board display “a range of willingness to engage,” both with the issues at hand, and with each other.
Time, pressure and participation are key factors that need to align in order to move things forward, Sadowski concurred.
“A lot of these issues are things that no one company can solve on its own,” he said.