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The Future of Footwear is Sustainable, So Brands Must Prep Accordingly

The footwear supply chain took an unexpected hit when the COVID-19 pandemic spread worldwide, but in spite of the headwinds brought by the crisis on top of the constant threat of tariff escalation with China, brands and manufacturers must move forward in their sustainability initiatives if they have any desire to stay relevant in the post-pandemic world.

Why should brands still maintain that sense of urgency? For one, footwear is still notorious for pollution, accounting for one-fifth of the fashion industry’s environmental impacts despite representing one-tenth of the industry’s total value, according to estimates from consulting group Quantis.

Additionally, if footwear brands don’t innovate, particularly in their sustainability measures, they are going to be missing the boat on a major piece of the industry’s projected growth. In fact, one study conducted by Grand View Research indicated that the sustainable footwear market could reach a combined value of $11.8 billion by 2027, with 68 percent of shoppers saying they consider sustainability a deciding factor when making a purchase.

A new report from Sourcing Journal on the state of the footwear industry reveals that brands such as Adidas, Allbirds, Timberland and Toms are among those that are taking the initiative to become more eco-friendly in their shoe sourcing, product development, design and distribution processes.

Toms, already known for its cause-driven mentality in donating more than 100 million pairs of shoes across the world to the less fortunate, launched its Earth Wise product program designed so that either the upper or outer unit of the shoe must be made with a sustainable component.

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The current shoe collection contains 26 percent sustainable materials, with linings and uppers made from Repreve’s plastic bottle-based fabrics, zero chemical plant-dyed uppers, Tencel lyocell wood pulp linings and Ortholite insoles.

Adidas and Allbirds, both already serious players in the sustainability push, have joined forces to create a performance shoe with the lowest carbon emissions in the market. While a single running shoe made with synthetic materials has a carbon footprint of between 11.3 and 16.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide, according to Adidas, the goal for both companies is to take that number to zero.

Timberland takes an outside-the-box approach to sustainable footwear production by prioritizing regenerative farming. The brand famous for its leather boots has partnered with The Savory Institute, a non-profit organization that facilitates the large-scale regeneration of the world’s grasslands, to integrate farms and ranchers that advocate for regenerative farming in the leather supply chain. Timberland has already sourced traceable hides that will be used in select footwear and accessories collections anticipated to hit the U.S. market in the fall.

“Regenerative cattle ranching piqued our interest about four years ago when we learned of several scientific papers demonstrating how these practices could help to actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere—where we obviously don’t want it—and store it in the soil, where we do want it, because it increases fertility and the ability for soil to hold water,” said Zachary Angelini, Timberland’s manager of environmental stewardship.

Components shore up the back end of sustainability

While the report shows that these brands are taking the lead in sustainability, inputs innovators such as component manufacturers play a sizeable role in the true success of these initiatives.

One such example comes from heritage outsole manufacturer Vibram, which is debuting Vibram Noil, a new rubber compound made from more than 90 percent petroleum-free ingredients. These soles will be dyed with natural pigments that are made by drying plants or extracting color from them.

As part of its future innovation goals around sustainability, insole maker Ortholite is working on a fully compostable foam product, which will be made from bio-based materials instead of petroleum.

“We hope to be able to speak more on the development later this year,” Ortholite global director of marketing Dan Legor said.

Eliminating waste through new technologies

While sustainability is often tied to eliminating waste, sometimes getting to that level simply requires having a better grasp of product demand. This requires the infusion of technologies such as demand forecasting, 3D foot scanners and digital material sample sharing.

And although footwear brands may feel the short-term investments in processes like made-to-order manufacturing are too high, especially as they try to scale back expenses throughout the pandemic, the shift to a “design, sell, make” mindset may benefit in the long run, particularly if another unpredictable event happens again.

“If you can avoid the production of something that you don’t think is going to sell or you don’t know is going to sell, that’s a great savings,” Bruce Wright, sales manager of North America and material digitization at color measurement tools manufacturer X-Rite told Sourcing Journal.

There’s no turning back

As modern shopper preferences continue to undergo rapid shifts, part of getting the demand side right and ultimately creating a sustainable supply chain is understanding what channels shoes are selling through. The coronavirus pandemic actually jolted life back into the online side of footwear sales. Online growth leveled out in 2019, with e-commerce representing 30 percent of footwear sales, according to Beth Goldstein, NPD Group’s industry analyst for accessories and footwear.

But by April, nearly two-thirds of all footwear sales took place online amid the mass store closures worldwide, before contracting to just over half when stores began to reopen. Nevertheless, Goldstein doesn’t expect a return to pre-COVID levels of digital sales penetration.

“Many shoppers will remain skittish about shopping in-store, and retailers and brands have invested a lot to enhance their digital capabilities during the lockdowns,” Goldstein said.

Learn more about why the industry has been stalling its environmental initiatives, their approach to sourcing in China (and elsewhere) and more future-facing trends to watch. Download Sourcing Journal’s 2020 Footwear Report here.