Shoe in water

Implementing Sustainable Practices in Footwear

The footwear industry faces a critical moment where sustainability is not just an option but a necessity. However, adopting responsible practices presents challenges in a number of areas - from material sourcing to manufacturing and consumer perspectives.

Firstly, it's important to clarify what we mean by sustainable footwear. We envision a product that leaves no trace. Sustainably produced shoes should embody circularity and durability, facilitating the ability to reuse, repair, remanufacture and recycle. They should be manufactured with a focus on reducing their overall carbon footprint, using no hazardous chemicals and avoiding the release of harmful chemicals and microplastics during use. At the end of its life, the shoe should be easy to disassemble into individual components for recycling or natural decomposition.

Before defining and selecting the components of a shoe, a designer should focus on its construction. A construction that is robust to ensure longevity, but that also makes it easy to disassemble, repair and recycle the shoe. Thoughtful design can minimise wear and tear, ultimately extending the life of the product. Sometimes this means thinking 'outside the box' and integrating new and innovative technologies into traditional manufacturing processes, even if this requires significant investment and change. But isn't that creative thinking what makes being a designer so exciting?

Collaboration with technology companies, start-ups and research institutions is crucial to fostering innovation. Recent developments show that the quest for stitch-free, glue-free, mono-material footwear for improved recycling is a practical approach to making it easier to separate at the end of a product's life. However, a functional shoe today typically consists of more than 40 components, making the selection and sensible combination of sustainable components yet another hurdle.

Hardly a week goes by without a new material or innovative membrane hitting the market. Material supply chains are often long, complex and opaque, with a lack of information about the origin and production conditions. Getting even a partial overview is a major challenge in producing sustainable footwear. Material sourcing fairs like PERFORMANCE DAYS are very helpful in facilitating responsible sourcing and fostering collaboration with suppliers. They enable designers and product developers to increase their knowledge of materials and chemicals and ensure that their decisions are not based solely on familiarity, availability and cost effectiveness.

A deeper understanding of the supply side also helps to explain why premium materials, innovative technologies and advanced production processes come at a higher price - and why many current production methods are environmentally damaging. This is because higher production costs translate into more expensive products, and it is crucial to communicate these costs to customers - along with the associated benefits: truly sustainable products have a longer lifespan, resulting in lower overall costs over time compared to cheaper alternatives that often wear out quickly and cannot be repaired.

The more accurately, effectively and transparently companies communicate the environmental impact of footwear production and use, and move away from greenwashing, the more consumers will be inclined to support sustainable products and actively reduce their carbon footprint. A collective effort is essential to navigate the sustainability crossroads, as there is no planet B.

Nina Conrad

About the Author

Nina Conrad

bttr GmbH

Nina Conrad has been working as a sustainability consultant in the textile and leather industry for many years, specializing in traceable and local supply chains. Her core business is the production of leather and leather goods that originate from animals from certified organic farms. She has established several leather supply chains in Switzerland, Germany and Italy and has worked as a Sustainability Manager, Product Manager and Project Lead for various smaller and larger companies in the apparel, accessories and footwear sectors. Besides she is a founding partner of the Sustainable Leather Foundation, and a co-founder of the Fibershed affiliate DACH.

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