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Is Footwear Sustainability at a Standstill?

Building sustainability into footwear is a delicate puzzle that relies on cost, design and innovation, from factory to design studio. And it’s a mind-teaser that befuddles even the most forward-thinking footwear brands. Whereas footwear’s counterpart, apparel, has a roster of alternative materials, footwear is facing an uphill battle that depends on investment in sustainable technology and a better understanding on the part of consumers about what footwear entails.

Timberland’s environmental efforts include longstanding public commitments to increase the use of recycled, organic and renewable materials. However, Colleen Vien, Timberland sustainability director, says the topic can be a difficult one to communicate to consumers when the product has as many components, as footwear does.

Unlike organic food or electric cars, which have obvious sustainable benefits, Vien points out that footwear is made up of leather, cotton, adhesives, rubber, polyester and metal components—and sometimes wool. “That’s a lot of environmental topics to cover. To focus on just one undermines the work that we do across all the topics,” she explained.

Sustainable Apparel Coalition CEO Jason Kibbey says consumers want sustainable footwear and will punish brands without environmentally-friendly practices, but they refuse to spend more for it. The key, he said, is to couple sustainable innovation with technical innovation.

Adidas’s long-term partnership with Parley for the Oceans, makers of yarn spun from recycled ocean plastic, is a recent example of high performance footwear with a green footprint. “Environmentalism is futurism today,” said Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Ocean.

Gutsch believes the next wave of innovations will “mold the future” while resolving past mistakes. “We’re now entering a period of time we can call the material revolution. It will go far beyond plastic, but Adidas x Parley is a good example [of] how that transition doesn’t have to be painful. It can be good business.”

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What is clear is that all manufacturing is under greater scrutiny from consumers, governments and NGOs. And while the apparel category has probably been more critiqued, SGS Global Environmental Service Manager Xavier Vital says increased pressure on the apparel industry from NGOs like Greenpeace does push forward many shoe brands that have some connections with apparel.

“A key challenge is to understand and get some type of control on the production of raw material,” Vital said. “There is often a disconnect between designers that have in mind the functionalities, the performance and the aesthetics of the products, but that do not know the environmental footprint of each raw material they use.”

The challenge is greater for a small to mid-size footwear company. Sustainability is an ongoing project for Veja, the French ecological sneaker label. Canvas made from organic agro-ecologic cotton and recycled polyester are used in its vegan sneakers, but founders Sebastien Kopp and François Ghislain Morillion said the company is still working on finding the best leather alternative, and even has a research team developing a sustainable replacement.

Finding materials that are both economically viable and that provide the same quality of standard materials is difficult, but Coclico designer Lisa Nadin says it’s worth the hunt. “We can’t count it in our profit margin, but we can sleep at night,” she said.

“Our industry cannot take a one-size fits all approach to sustainability,” added Matt Priest, president and CEO of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America.

The alternative materials and innovations available to a performance shoe brand won’t necessarily apply to fashion footwear. However, Priest believes through the auditing process for compliance work, more brands are adding sustainability to the discussion—be it water waste treatments, use of chemicals or end of life. “The economics will be there over time,” he said. “I think there will be more opportunities to find factories that are within the collective understanding of what a sustainable factory may or may not be.”