Shoe Brands Are Moving Toward Sustainability, One Step at a Time

The release of an ugly sneaker signals where the industry is headed

As part of its “MADE Responsibly” limited collection, New Balance recently released what can only be described as the ugliest shoe ever made — unless you count Crocs as a shoe. But this was more than a successful attempt to tap into a booming market using a scarcity-mindset marketing ploy.

This was a signal for where the company and the wider industry are moving, and that direction is sustainability. In April, New Balance launched a new Responsible Leadership strategy, which outlines its new focus on sustainability goals and initiatives. Notable points include the desire to increase its use of recycled materials, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030, and use 100% renewable electricity across its entire global operation by 2025. In reality, the company needed to act. Two of its main competitors, Nike and Adidas, had already announced strategies to decrease their environmental impact in 2020, leaving brands like New Balance with ground to make up.

More than a limited run

After the product team found 3,000 extra soles lying around, they proposed turning them into a limited run based on the popular 998 style — a perfect tie-in to the company’s new strategy. On top of the reused sole, each shoe is constructed with scraps from the factory floor, including meshes, laces, and linings. New materials have only been used “when necessary.” The result is bold, colorful, and one of a kind, with each shoe unique from the next. The run was well-received by sneaker enthusiasts, with all 2,700 pairs, costing $180 each, selling out within hours of launching on May 1. The unfinished-looking “glitched” models are not for sale (this time) and are instead designed to create marketing buzz and highlight how the scraps have come together to form the sneakers.

In 2018 alone, it’s estimated that 24.2 billion pairs of shoes were manufactured, more than three for every person on the planet.

New Balance is not the first company to make a shoe from leftovers — the Nike Trash Talk is one memorable example, the first performance basketball shoe made from manufacturing waste which was released in 2008 — but it’s an effective experiment that showcases both the potential to use waste materials and the potential market for the waste-efficient shoes. Jeff McAdams, New Balance’s vice president of global marketing, believes the limited run is far more than a marketing stunt, saying, “it looks like a limited product launch, but there’s more depth to why we did it, why we got to it, and where it’s going to go.” The company hopes to use the launch as a springboard for its future direction into the sustainable footwear market, which is expected to be worth $10.4 billion by 2027.

Reducing the footprint

While the larger players in the footwear market have only just begun shouting about their move toward sustainability, many smaller players have been pursuing this ambition for some time. The Salomon Index.01, released this spring, is a running shoe made entirely from 100% recyclable materials. The innovation lies in the ability to disassemble the shoe at the end of its life, improving recycling capabilities. The polyester upper section is reused in fabric creation, while the sole can be broken down for various uses, including being used in the company’s alpine ski boots.

Reebok is trying a different approach and lowering its use of unsustainable materials with the release of the Floatride Energy Grow, a plant-based running shoe manufactured from 50% USDA-certified biobased material. Veja makes sneakers with raw materials sourced from organic farming and ecological agriculture and is recognized as one of the world’s most sustainable sneakers. In April 2020, U.K. shoe company Allbirds announced it was becoming the first fashion brand to label every item produced with its carbon footprint, and promises to offset the impact its products have on the environment through its Carbon Fund. As well as informing consumers, the company hopes to encourage other brands to follow suit and “beat” their score.

With rising waste and the environmental impact of the shoe industry increasing, the major shoe brands need to continue to step up. In 2018 alone, it’s estimated that 24.2 billion pairs of shoes were manufactured, more than three for every person on the planet. The majority are now likely sitting in landfills and will be for a long time, as some of the materials used in the shoe can take 1,000 years to break down. The production process is exceptionally carbon-intensive, accounting for 1.4% of the global greenhouse gas emissions (for reference, air travel accounts for around 2.5%). With the rise in sneaker hype continuing, and more and more shoes being released to capitalize on the market boom, the problem is only escalating.

To counter the effects, shoe companies will need to continue to innovate and reduce output. More importantly, they will need to move toward more collaborative processes to reduce the footprint of the supply chain and make recycling the products easier for the consumer. Dio Kurazawa, brand consultant and founder of The Bear Scouts, believes this is the key to the sustainable shoe industry continuing to make headway. “Instead of the more traditional collabs, we expect to see industries colliding with material and innovation companies partnering with performance trainer brands. Think Porsche and Boeing’s flying car project.” The recently announced Futurecraft.Footprint — a shoe with fewer carbon emissions than a Big Mac — is the result of a collaboration by Adidas and Allbirds to produce the world’s most sustainable shoe. The project is a step in the right direction and a great example of what can be achieved when companies come together to tackle bigger issues.

While the big brand’s new strategies and drives toward sustainability are welcome, talking the talk is one thing — walking the walk another thing entirely. Only time will tell whether or not these scraps hold up long-term.

Editor-in-Chief of Post-Grad Survival Guide • Columnist in Marker • Thoughts on business, ideas, writing & more

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