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The challenge of making sustainable footwear

Multiple materials and manufacturing processes contribute to a complicated answer.

Features | July 31, 2023 | By: Marie O’Mahony

Plastic footwear can take 1000 years to break down. Photo: OrthoLite.

A single method to calculate and mitigate the negative environmental impact of footwear is much needed. The European Commission is promoting the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF), designed to offer a single method to calculate, and perhaps as important, to communicate the environmental performance of products in a way that makes comparison easier and more transparent. It is now in its transition phase of developing sixteen new environmental footprint category rules for Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA), including for footwear. 

The scope is of necessity broad, covering such issues as the use of resources, environmental and human toxicity, the lifecycle stages, and flows with the greatest environmental impact indicating hotspots and critical points where intervention would be most effective. In their report “Materials and sustainability: how can footwear be more sustainable?”, the Portuguese Footwear, Components and Leather Goods Manufacturers’ Association (APICCAPS) estimate that 60–80 percent of footwear’s environmental impact lies in the materials and components selected during the manufacturing phase. 

The association makes note of the importance of design: “In the design phase, eco-design methodologies and strategies are vital for the development of more environmentally sustainable footwear because the definition of the concept of the product, target market and selection of raw materials, type of construction and production process takes place here.” Brands are already embracing this, while acknowledging that it remains a work in progress.

Zero waste shoes

Allbirds are establishing themselves as a footwear brand firmly focused on reducing their carbon emissions. The culmination of seven year’s work with various initiatives along the way, the brand are set to launch MO.ONSHOT in Spring 2024, announcing it as the world’s first net zero carbon shoe. They estimate that an average sneaker currently generates around 14kg CO2e, their design achieves a zero-carbon footprint without looking to carbon offsetting. 

While many brands are reluctant to share details of their manufacturing and auditing processes, Allbirds are not, sharing a detailed Open Source “Recipe Book” that others might follow. It includes details of materials, partners and rationale in the selection. The upper, for example, is made from carbon-negative wool from New Zealand where the farm, Lake Hawea Station (LHS) sequesters more carbon than it emits. 

Producing a zero-waste shoe is not enough in itself, and the brand acknowledges the need for wider community and individual engagement if it is to be effective. In packaging, for example, a Green PE (a sugar cane-based polyethylene) is used. Technically, it can be fully recyclable, however many recycling programs are not ready to accept a thin film plastic, so the company is calling for further partnerships to help in piloting the packaging before the launch. This is a long way from the traditional culture of secrecy among sports brands, and it’s long overdue.

Sensing shoes in healthcare

In the U.K., Footfalls and Heartbeats is reducing the environmental impact of both the footwear and the wearer. The U.K. company is a specialist in wearables—footwear, in particular, for healthcare, hence the name. They are reducing the number of components by developing an e-textile that is itself a sensor, eliminating the need to embed electronics in the textile. This creates a more comfortable shoe for the wearer as well as making repair and recycling easier. 

Footfalls and Heartbeats trainers for prehabilitation and rehabilitation can be knitted in less than 26 minutes, one of the benefits of eliminating the need to embed electronics in the fabric. Photo: Footfalls and Heartbeats.

As the line between home and hospital care is becoming more blurred, developments such as this offer a hybrid solution. The trainers are developed as a healthcare tool to provide valuable real-time data for patient prehabilitation and rehabilitation. A patient going for hip or knee surgery can wear the shoes in advance of their hospital stay to gather data and map their baseline gait prior to surgery. Post-surgery, this provides a personalized program helping to re-establish their gait during rehabilitation. Both can be conducted in the home saving journeys to hospitals and reducing the carbon footprint of their treatment. 

The company has also developed knitted socks that can gather gait data to measure contact time, foot placement and stride time for use in prehabilitation and rehabilitation as well as sports training. In this development, a removable data acquisition module is connected by a 3D printed connection structure. The module component, is removable, leaving the sock washable and reusable.

Repair and recycling

Even without the use of smart devices, the repair and recycling of footwear is fraught with challenges. Trainers (athletic-type shoes) may have soles in reasonable condition, but the uppers may disintegrate a lot sooner as rubber can outlast textiles compounded by the fact that the latter is a fraction of the thickness of the former. While consumers may look to repair clothing, trainers much less so. 

In a new initiative, a small Dutch studio specializing in recycling denim have used the material to refurbish old trainers. Circular designer Petra van Bend uses denim jeans from the environmental denim brand MUD. Taking denim jeans that can no longer be used in apparel, van Bend uses traditional sashiko embroidery techniques to create new uppers for adidas trainers. By the nature of the process, each pair is unique, giving a new lease on life to footwear that might otherwise have gone to a landfill.

Custom, regenerative—and sustainable

Vivobarefoot was established just over a decade ago by two seventh-generation cobblers, Galahad and Asher Clark in U.K. Their vision is to promote barefoot footwear as an experience that brings the wearer closer to nature, making them more environmentally aware, while offering footwear that is regenerative to human health and wellbeing. As might be expected, the company use sustainable materials where possible, such as an algae-based EVA foam, Wild Hide leathers and wool from Woolmark-certified farms in Australia. These are still a work in progress with just 5 percent of the algae foam being used, and pursuing the goal of finding a 100 percent natural tanning process for leathers. 

The company is also looking to digital technology to create a next generation of custom footwear that sits with their philosophy. Vivobiome is being led by Asher Clark, and offers a radical vision for a circular, scan-to- print system that reimagines how footwear is designed and made. The new footwear will be offered to customers made-to-order and thus on-demand, made-to-measure and produced locally (on-shore). It also offers circularity in that it is designed to be remade. 

For the consumer, mobile foot scanning with VivoBiome’s patent pending computational fit and design platform is the first step. The software generates a fit profile drawing on data points from more than 1,000 feet. Restricted to just three foot-widths at present, the intention is to broaden it to make it fully customizable. 3D printing and robotics allow for the refinement of the bespoke design and fit. New tools offer a measurement of energy, waste and CO2 to better address and reduce all three. 

The company has just launched their VivoBiome Pioneer program in the U.K. to recruit 200 customers to test and provide feedback before it is fully launched in 2024. Developers anticipate that it will be offered as a subscription model around loyalty and gamification, but also facilitating returns at the product’s end-of-use.

Each of these are good examples of how addressing sustainability issues can leverage innovation and unique products. Consumers are noticing—and they are also noticing brands which are not acting to reduce their environmental impact.

Dr. Marie O’Mahony is an industry consultant, author, academic, and a frequent contributor to Textile Technology Source. She lives in London.

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