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Footwear Brands Define Their Own Path for Sustainability

From leather alternatives and recycled rubber, to environmentally friendly manufacturing facilities, footwear brands committed to sustainability, have created their own path to becoming green. And as ideas evolve into innovations and consumer preferences shift, these three footwear brands are forging a path for many more to follow.

For women’s fashion footwear brand Coclico, that journey includes using third party, eco-certified tanneries as much as possible and working with Native Energy, a provider of carbon offsets, to minimize its footprint.

The brand is also introducing vegetable-tanned lining leather that has zero trace of chrome and a new natural rubber latex insole with recycled cork and linen. “We use recycled cork for our internal platforms, solid cork blocks and solid wood heels,” designer Lisa Nading said. “We periodically review the supply chain with our suppliers to track that these materials are sustainably sourced. And we are working with knits now that are custom made to order, reducing waste.”

For Timberland, it’s been about a multi-pronged approach to sustainability.

“At Timberland, we strive to be ‘Earthkeepers’ in everything we do,” Colleen Vien, Timberland sustainability director, said. “A big part of that is an unwavering commitment to make our products responsibly—in terms of what goes into them as well as how they are made. There are a number of steps we’ve taken over the years to make our footwear manufacturing more sustainable.”

In addition to being a founding member of the Leather Working Group (LWG) and quickly establishing commitments to only source leather from tanneries that achieved a Silver or Gold rating from the group, Timberland has extended its sustainable commitments to include increasing the use of recycled, organic and renewable materials in all of its products, eliminating PVC and PFCs, and reducing the use of VOCs [Volatile Organic Chemicals] in its manufacturing.

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The brand holds its partners to high standards, too. “Our largest supplier of Timberland footwear, our owned manufacturing operations in the Dominican Republic, is consistently certified to both the ISO 14001 and WRAP standards. Many of our contract suppliers are certified to the same or similar standards, in addition to being audited by VF’s Compliance team annually,” she said.

Natalie Dean, founder of British vegan footwear brand Beyond Skin, said the line was created in response to the “challenging predicament of combining both style and fashion with an ethically conscious lifestyle.”

Part of that challenge was solved by manufacturing in Spain. “We wanted our factories to be within the EU as auditing factories in the Far East is very problematic,” Dean said. The other part was solved by sourcing premium materials from Italy.

Nowadays, due to the tremendous advances in textile and fabric technology, Dean said many sustainable alternative materials are available. However, she said, “the challenge isn’t finding leather alternatives, it’s finding the high quality, more sustainable ones.”

Beyond Skin predominantly uses luxury Italian PU’s, faux suedes and textiles for those same reasons, and wherever possible, the company tries to find ethically sourced, sustainable materials that don’t sacrifice quality or style. Dean noted that 100 percent recycled PU lining is used throughout the collection, along with 100 percent recycled PET faux suedes and eco PU leathers, which are peppered throughout the range.

“There are many brands that produce footwear from synthetics mainly from the Far East, but our Italian materials are of premium quality and have a luxury finish to the point that most people can barely tell the difference between real or faux,” she added.

For a brand built on durability, like Timberland, it can also be tough to meet the requirements of bonding and abrasion with various alternative materials. “Footwear has so many different components that it can be a challenge to find sustainable solutions for all of them. Also, some areas of specific function—like in our industrial PRO products—are not always easy to replace. One good example of this is PVC welts. We’ve made great progress but still have some performance challenges with certain PRO styles. We will continue to innovate and strive to solve for the remaining challenges in order to reach our 2020 goal,” Vien said.

The cost of sustainable materials is another hindrance brands have to contend with.

“It is challenging to find materials that are both economically viable and that provide the same quality of standard materials,” Nading said, adding however, that she’s encouraged by the innovations on the horizon.

And Vien shares that whim of optimism. “The cost of materials is always a challenge, in footwear and frankly, in most industries. As more and more materials become readily available, and consumer demand continues to rise, we can hope to see this shift over time,” she said.

For Coclico, its well-considered and timeless designs are part of its approach to being sustainable. “In the design process, we are very careful to sidestep flash trends and embellishments that would quickly date the style and relegate it to the back of the closet the following season,” Nading said.

However, as sustainability becomes more mainstream, footwear brands are able to shift their sales pitch from being green to being aesthetically appealing.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, a vast majority of our clientele come to us for style first. We have learned that our slow-fashion ethos doesn’t drive the business, the client needs to desire the product or she isn’t interested in knowing more,” Nading added.

Likewise, Beyond Skin’s use of materials has become a source of design inspiration. The brand is known for its play on vintage silhouettes and dress shoes. Dean said the brand’s philosophy creates the opportunity for the company to embrace an “unusual” use of fabrics, prints and weaves within its designs, which has become its signature style.

“It has always been paramount that our shoes do not compromise in comfort or style in any way in order to forge ahead as a competitive premium fashion footwear brand,” Dean said. “We are profoundly aware that we and other ethical businesses cannot survive on our ethical merits alone. Like any other business, we have to continue to produce goods that are well designed, good quality and competitive and not place ourselves in a niche market.”

One misconception Vien said she hears from time to time is that sustainable footwear is not always the most stylish. “To which I simply reply, have you seen Timberland’s collections this season? We have absolutely reached a point where sustainability and style can, and do, go hand in hand,” she said.

Dean echoes that sentiment. Although there’s still a residual stigma surrounding what “being green” or “vegan” implies, she believes consumers’ perceptions are changing. “Most of us are aware that our planet cannot sustain our insatiable desire for disposable, irresponsible fashion,” she said.

“There is a vast array of talented, pioneering new businesses exploiting this new market and new designers leaving university with a greater awareness of environmental issues. These are all contributing to breaking the stereotypes and expectations of what this earnest demographic usually looks like, and proving fashion and ethics can go hand in hand,” Dean said.