Footwear industry ups its ecological ante to speed up sustainability efforts
From “carbon neutral” to “zero waste”, it seems brands are jumping on the eco- bandwagon and footwear is catching up rapidly. Sneakers, or trainers, have been hot on this trail with sustainable launches and collaborations regularly hitting the fashion pages. A pioneering moment was when French brand, Veja, revealed that its global success had been achieved with zero advertising. In a world where a new sneaker launch can rake up to 70% of costs in advertising, this was unheard of. Veja declared that it allocates its entire budget to its raw materials, production methods and fair-trade principles and as their latest sales figures can testify – it’s certainly working.
What is interesting about Veja’s success is that consumers are voting with their wallets and opting for on-trend footwear with clear sustainable and ethical values. According to recent industry analysis,  the global sustainable footwear market size was valued at USD 7.5 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.8% from 2020 to 2027. Growing awareness among consumers was cited as a key factor along with a rising number of young adults globally, coupled with significant purchasing power of this consumer group.
Footwear brands, be it large or small names, have upped their sustainable offers and commitment to better safeguard the planet. For example, UGG recently unveiled its long-term sustainability strategy in their “FEEL GOOD” platform, focussing on environment, community and innovation. On the other hand, Italian shoe brand, Advanced Commuter Basic Concept (ACBC), have designed an eco-friendly shoe collection that adopts a modular shoe concept with a patented zipper system, separating the upper and the sole. Customers can create different shoes (up to 12 variations of uppers) with one single sole whilst remaining environmentally friendly as it aims to cut down more than 45% the CO2 impact produced.
For Allbirds, the sustainable ethos has been embedded from the very beginning, as founders Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger intentionally opted for natural materials and turned their back on synthetic alternatives often found in the footwear sector. The brand began with super light, machine washable footwear created from Merino wool and have gone on to develop technical sneakers made from durable and breathable eco-friendly fibre, TENCEL™ branded lyocell fibers, and sugarcane used to make SweetFoam™. The brand has set a long-term goal to reduce its carbon footprint to zero and now labels every product with its carbon footprint measure.
Another new and sustainable design this season comes courtesy of Camper, under its latest collaboration with the TENCEL™ brand, the textile segment for the Austrian botanic fiber producer, Lenzing. The Camper Right and Upright boot and bootie have been designed with an innovative knitted construction technique that contains TENCEL™ Lyocell fibres from botanic origin and derived from sustainably grown wood sources. The process recycles water and uses 95% less in comparison to conventional cotton. For this womenswear collection, the fiber has been blended to create an innovative 3D webbed structure, which creates a sock-style boot with support, comfort and conscious attitude.
Cecilia Llorens, Product Design Director for Camper explains, “Long-term partnerships such as those with Lenzing are vital to reducing the environmental impact of the footwear industry. Our designers are focused towards change and developing new innovations in design, but this must be complemented by materials such as TENCEL™. We plan to eliminate the use of virgin plastic in our uppers by 2022, and natural materials that achieve both performance sustainability are essential to being able to achieve this.”
The American footwear and apparel company Reebok have also launched their first vegan running shoe this season (A/W20). The sneakers are made of plant-based materials, including castor beans, algae, eucalyptus trees and natural rubber. The brand says it is responding to its customer’s requests for products that are more sustainable, something that the running community in particular has been very vocal about.
At the designer end of the scale, Italian design house Bottega Veneta showcased accessorised its A/W20 collection with fully sustainable “Puddle Boots”. The clog/welly style is made from rubber derived from sugarcane and coffee, which is able to biodegrade within a year of being placed underground or in a controlled environment.
Footwear brands, it seems, are really starting to take sustainability seriously. Ethical and sustainable shoe brand Po-Zu have now set up “The Better Shoes Foundation”, to promote sustainable development and practices across the global shoe industry. The foundation offers an open-source platform that anyone can access and shares key links to suppliers, brands, campaigns and more. Furthermore, associations have emerged as strong proponents of sustainability in this industry too. Shoe Sustainability by the US Footwear Distributor and Retail Association, in particular, is a site catered for educating, empowering, and activating stakeholders across the footwear sector.
While consumer choice is growing in the sustainable footwear arena, the sector still has a long way to go and further targets to think about. Birgit Schnetzlinger, Head of Global Business Development for Functional Wear at Lenzing comments, “Looking ahead at the next 1 – 3 years, an important area is water scarcity and improving the water footprint. While reducing plastics has already reached great consumer awareness, saving water – the world’s most threatened essential resource – will be one of the hot topics in the future. The apparel and footwear industry is one of the biggest contributors to wastewater and water pollution and, according to the World Bank, around 20% of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment.”
Reportedly, in the sustainability stakes, the footwear industry is a decade behind apparel, however the offering of sustainable products, from both large and small brands, has noticeably increased over past few years. Circularity, greenwashing and a totally transparent supply chain are growing issues on the agenda, along with short-run, speed of response manufacturing. You could say that the apparel and footwear sectors have entered a “restructuring phase”, which for the health of the planet, is no bad thing.