The Why & How of Sustainable Footwear: A Look at Allbirds, Rothy’s, & More

MakersValley Blog | The Why & How of Sustainable Footwear: A Look at Allbirds, Rothy’s, & More
Tashfia Parvez

Tashfia Parvez

First of all, why does sustainability in footwear sourcing even matter?

In the era of greener apparel manufacturing practices, footwear is generally not talked about, but it needs to be. Footwear currently has a global market capacity of about 280 billion dollars, and that number is only projected to rise.

About 20% of the negative environmental impacts caused by the apparel industry comes from shoe manufacturing. An average pair of shoes contains about 20 different parts, most of them ending up in landfills or oceans; many of them that may never fully decompose, at least not without emitting unhealthy amounts of carbon dioxide. Moreover, the glues, rubber, and leather found in shoes consist of chemicals that, “...leach into soil and are released into the air, impacting the surrounding ecology and atmosphere”, says Barbara Mattivy, CEO of Insecta.

MakersValley Blog | sustainable footwear | ethical sourcing | raw materialsPhoto by whereslugo on Unsplash

Creating sustainable footwear can make your company more money than you might think. Research, development, and implementation of the innovative sustainability solutions can be costly, but the return on investment is worth it. “If you can find materials that perform better, cost less or have a neutral impact on the bottom line, and people are willing to pay for them, then you’ve hit on something,” Nike veteran Michael Sadowski said. “There’s so much interest in ocean plastic. That sort of thing drives brand benefits and drives sales.”

How Fashion’s Leaders Are Making Eco-Friendly Footwear Options a Reality

The first step in building a greener supply chain is the manufacturing of shoe materials. That begins with sourcing sustainable raw materials or biodegradable components and designing shoes that are comfortable, stylish, and durable.

Sadowski said that polyurethane and EVA foams (used mostly in athletic shoe midsoles) are the main culprit and separating them from, “...rubber outsoles and leather uppers would allow each of those components to be dealt with separately, and some of them could be recycled or reused.”

Keen Footwear is doing exactly that and replacing their polyurethane-based midsoles with Bounce, an organic compound made of corn and soybean plants that makes it compostable under certain conditions instead of adding to the landfill waste.

OAT Shoes makes footwear that can fully decompose once worn out and thrown away. In fact, they hide seeds in their shoes that can be composted or planted for flowers to bloom - a great initiative to combat deforestation.

Related: Find out how a Filipino tech company is synthesizing textile from pineapples.

Rubber is a very common shoe component as it is very resilient, highly elasticity, and waterproof. Po-zu’s website states that they source their rubber from the milky sap of the Lactae Hevea tree. Their unique process starts with rubber tappers accumulating the liquid and transforming it to a dry rubber suitable for commercial use. This natural form of the latex rubber is solvent free and more durable than regular petroleum-based rubber. Po-zu uses it with coconut husks in their foot mattress design to make their shoes more flexible and comfortable.

MakersValley Blog | Rothy's | Allbird's | Vegan LeatherPhoto by Sladjana Karvounis on Unsplash

Allbirds is a popular sneaker startup that quickly gained momentum and valuation. They are known to use merino wool (sourced from ethically farmed and raised sheep) for the uppers of the shoes, eucalyptus trees to make fibers, and sugar cane for the SweetFoam soles. They also incorporate recycled plastic bottles and castor bean oil in their designs.

Besides Allbirds, other companies investing in recycled plastic bottles are Converse (for their Renew Collection) and Rothy’s, with the latter reusing upto 50 million bottles that would have otherwise been added to the waste pile.

To do this, Rothy's breaks down the bottles into small flakes of plastic, transforms them into smaller beads and then spins them into yarn. Some of their shoes have a mix of these plastic fibers and merino wool, which is ethically sourced and crafted at a sustainable Italian mill.

Another emerging trend worth looking into is alternatives for leather. Nearly 25% of global footwear contains leather, but it’s solely responsible for four-fifths of all waste contributed by shoes. Faux and vegan leather exist, but most are not nearly as high quality as the real deal, which leads people to buy more often. This creates a high demand for quality leather alternatives that last.

Bolt Threads is a company specializing in bioengineered textiles and has come up with a sustainable leather substitute called Mylo, made up of mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms. This substance is lab cultivated and biodegradable. Mylo products are still not in the market, but Stella McCartney, one of the most prominent and earliest designers to adopt vegan leather for shoe production, created a prototype Falabella bag out of Mylo.

Beyond Sustainable Raw Materials

For footwear brands like Insecta, sustainability doesn’t just lie within the chemistry of the shoe components. They’ve invested in “closed-loop” programs, which allow customers to send back their worn shoes so that the company can recycle them instead of sending them directly to the landfills. “Everything is transformed into new insoles and soles not just for us, but for the footwear industry in general,” said Mattivy.

MakersValley Blog | Ethical Supply Chain | Beyond SourcingPhoto by Matthew Henry from Burst 

Patagonia participates in take-back programs that encourage customers to bring back their worn out shoes to be repaired or recycled, completely free of charge. This not only increases their products’ lifecycle, it also builds customer loyalty.

Shoe packaging can also be a source of environmental waste. To combat this, Puma collaborated with FuseProject and created a minimalistic, recyclable shoe package that produces less waste once disposed of. It also has a more compact design that makes transportation easier, contributing to a lower carbon footprint.

Creating a more sustainable and ethical supply chain for your next footwear line by designing and sourcing smarter raw materials is just the beginning of your label’s supply chain transformation. Once production completes, think about the next steps your team can take to improve on and expand eco-friendly logistics and responsible waste disposal or reduction.

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