Sustainability in the footwear industry
Here is how the footwear industry is tackling the problem of sustainability
There is no doubt that the footwear industry is big business. The global athletic footwear market alone is expected to exceed 95 billion US Dollars by 2025. As it grows, so does the demand for footwear that is environmentally and socially sustainable. A recent survey by Certilogo found that more than 70% of consumers are concerned about the sustainability of their fashion purchases, and research by Simon Kucher Consultants found that 1 in 3 people are willing to spend an average of 25% more for sustainable products.
Unfortunately, many footwear companies have been slow to adopt sustainable practices. Let’s explore the sustainability challenges of the shoe industry and how brands are transforming their processes toward sustainability.
The environmental and social impact of the footwear industry
Like the textile industry, the shoe industry has a significant environmental impact:
- The production of footwear requires large amounts of water, about 8,000 liters per pair;
- The manufacturing process involves the use of chemicals, such as adhesives and tanning chemicals, which may leak into the environment through the discharge from the factories;
- The footwear industry is a major consumer of energy. From growing the crops to operating the machinery employed, shoe companies consume fossil fuels which produce greenhouse gases. According to a study by Quantis, the industry is responsible for 1.4% of global emissions;
- Another source of pollution is transportation of the shoes from the factories to the resellers;
- Finally, most of the shoes are not recycled and end up in landfill.
The footwear industry also has a significant social impact.
The vast majority of footwear is produced in developing countries, where workers are often paid very low wages. In addition, often working conditions in factories are poor and workers have to work long hours in dangerous or harmful environments. Some brands in the footwear industry have been known to employ child labor in their supply chain. All this leads to an impoverishment of the communities in which the factories are located.
Finally, the use of leather also raises ethical questions.
How are shoe brands transforming their processes to be more sustainable?
As consumers become more interested in the sustainability of their purchases, they are demanding the footwear industry to change. Shoe brands are starting to respond by transforming their processes.
For example, some Nike stores in the United States and Europe participate in shoe recycling programs. Once old shoes are collected, the materials are separated, then reused or turned into new materials (Nike Grind). Nike uses Nike Grind for new products: shoes, store furniture, skateboards, and even running tracks. Since 1992, the company has recycled 130 million kilos of material. In addition, it has a broader sustainability program, Move to Zero, to get to zero carbon emissions and zero waste, and support the circular economy.
Meanwhile, Adidas launched a line of fully recyclable sneakers, Futurecraft Loop, and Puma have designed a 100% biodegradable shoe collection.
Beyond the famous names, there are countless shoe brands that are setting a new standard for the footwear industry.
Sustainable and ethical shoe brands like Allbirds and Veja are leading the way in sustainable footwear. Allbirds use sustainable materials, such as recycled plastic and wool, in all of their shoes. They also offset their carbon emissions and have a commitment to using only renewable energy. Veja uses sustainable materials, such as organic cotton and wild rubber, in all of their shoes. They also work with fair trade cooperatives to improve the working conditions of their workers.
The future of the sustainable footwear market
According to Grand View Research, in 2019 the global sustainable footwear market was worth $7.5 billion. Forecasts say it will grow 5.8% annually between 2020 and 2027. It sounds interesting, doesn’t it?
In particular, the biggest evolution is likely in the sneaker market. This is due to the growth in the purchasing power of Millennials and their on-the-go lifestyle.
In addition to the increasing consumer awareness, the footwear market is also growing due to technological innovations which enable better processing of materials and new functionality. For example, digitization and 3D printers allow companies to create samples and design multiple versions of a single design, quickly and with less waste.
Technology also helps address the issue of cost. Materials for producing sustainable footwear are generally more expensive. However, their recycling is becoming more feasible. As a consequence, the cost of sourcing raw materials will probably decrease in the near future.