The way to develop a sustainable shoe

When Allbirds was launched in 2015, it was a company on a mission to reduce the footwear industry’s heavy carbon footprint.

Instead of plastic or leather, Allbirds made their sneakers from merino wool. It replaced the synthetic foam used to give most sneaker midsoles a cushiony feel with a material made primarily from sugar cane. And he sold millions of dollars worth of shoes.

Fast forward to 2022 and the company is just one of many looking to move the needle in space, as growing consumer and regulatory pressure drives brands to improve their footprints. environmental.

Shoes are typically made from tough, high-impact materials like leather or plastic-based synthetics and manufactured far from the final point of sale, limiting companies’ ability to monitor working conditions. On top of that, shoes are also made up of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of small constituent parts. This creates a complex headache for any design team to deal with each component, especially since the shoes are, by design, difficult to disassemble, and therefore reuse or recycle.

“Clothes are much easier because you only have one material, maybe a few stitches, and then the product is finished,” said Viviane Gut, senior director of sustainability at Adidas. “Shoes have up to 200 different parts that go into a single shoe.”

To meet the challenge, companies must fundamentally rethink the way shoes are designed, manufactured and ultimately disposed of.

A material matter

Over the past three years, Allbirds has worked to develop a new, even lower impact material for its cushioned midsoles. Last week, the company launched a running shoe using the updated material, which is derived from castor oil. The new shoe requires less energy to manufacture and produces less waste, Allbirds said.

Clothes are much easier because you only have one material, maybe a few stitches, and then the product is finished. Shoes have up to 200 different parts that fit into a single shoe.

The biggest challenge was inventing a one-step process to turn castor oil into foam, said Jad Finck, vice president of innovation and sustainability at Allbirds. Typically, making cushioned running shoes requires several energy-intensive steps and cutting foam blocks to create the desired shape, which produces waste. Allbirds’ SwiftFoam, on the other hand, uses a process that melts and injects liquid resin into a mold, where it then solidifies. “We could have launched this shoe probably a lot sooner if we had gone with the status quo,” Finck said.

Efforts to develop alternative materials with less environmental impact than the leather, cotton canvas and synthetic plastics typically used in footwear are also gaining momentum elsewhere.

Companies like Adidas, Reformation and Golden Goose are experimenting with plant-based alternatives to leather derived from mushrooms, grains and palm leaves. Last year, investors invested more than $980 million in start-ups that make innovative materials without animals, up from $425 million in 2020, according to the nonprofit Material Innovation Initiative.

But many of these alternative materials have yet to achieve commercial scale or price competitiveness with their conventional incumbents. There is also no environmental silver bullet and plant-based materials generally need to contain plastics to ensure their durability and performance.

For Allbirds, SwiftFoam marks a step closer to its ambition to halve the carbon footprint of its products by 2025. Now it must continue to improve the material.

“The first challenge was: ‘How can we make this process generate less waste? How do we get this process [to be] less energy? Finck said. Increasing the plant content of the material is the next challenge.

Supply chain

New innovations are only one piece of the puzzle; The growing focus on sustainability is also pushing companies to rethink how and where they make their products.

For example, Reformation’s first foray into footwear in 2019 was short-lived. The company, which bills itself as the sustainable answer to fast fashion giant Zara, rushed into the category in response to consumer demand and did not feel comfortable that its supply chain could hold up to careful scrutiny. He pulled the brakes.

“We…started reinventing the footwear supply chain from scratch and really centering it around ‘how can we make the most sustainable dress shoes on the market?’ “, said Alison Melville, general manager of product innovation at Reformation. “It has to start at the beginning of the supply chain.”

For the Reformation, this meant producing everything in one place. The brand has moved to the southern region of Brazil to manufacture its block heels and dressy sandals, thanks to its concentration of leather tanneries highly regarded for their environmental, ethical and farm-level traceability credentials, said Melville. The company does not source cowhides from the Amazon region to avoid links to deforestation, but instead uses farms in the grassland region of the pampas. The localized supply chain also reduces fuel costs and emissions associated with shipping materials from one stage of production to the next.

[When you use] materials seven, eight or 10 times more, then the [carbon] the footprint decreases considerably.

But reworking traditional fashion supply chains comes with its own set of challenges. French footwear brand Veja has built its business around strong ties with its Brazil-based suppliers and a commitment to ethical sourcing. Its production costs are also five to seven times higher than in major shoe production hubs like Vietnam or China, said Veja co-founder Sebastien Kopp.

Kopp says he balances that, along with inflation or disruption risks, with more caution in other business decisions. “We are developing step by step. We are not going too fast,” he said.

End of life

The question then arises of making a shoe that is easily recyclable at the end of its life.

It’s a challenge that requires completely rethinking the way a shoe is constructed to simplify the number of individual components and rethink hard-to-recycle elements like glue. There are pockets of innovation: Adidas has developed a shoe made of a single material. Nike’s latest drop, the ISPA Link, is completely glueless and therefore easier to disassemble for repair or recycling.

But creating recyclable shoes is only one piece of the puzzle. Companies also need to think about how to get old shoes from consumers to recyclers and then (ideally) use the resulting raw material to make new products.

“We need consumer engagement and participation to bring the product back or ship it back to us,” Adidas Gut said. This must be accompanied by a change in the industry more broadly, she added. After all, the sneakerhead craze isn’t exactly encouraging shoppers to give up their possessions.

Some players innovate both in their products and their business model with this in mind. For example, On’s soon-to-be-launched subscription service Cyclon gives customers access to the brand’s latest sneakers in exchange for their old On shoes, which the company then recycles. The company aims to reduce its carbon emissions by 55% per pair of shoes by 2030.

“[When you use] materials seven, eight or 10 times more, then the [carbon] the footprint shrinks dramatically,” said On co-founder Caspar Coppetti. “You really have to go to the source and develop new processes, new technologies, scale them…and then there’s a lot more investment needed.”

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