It’s the hot topic on everyone’s lips, hotter than the greenhouse gases collecting in our atmosphere – what can we do to make products that use less of the earth’s essential and finite resources? The best engineers, designers and scientists have teamed up to put their mega-brains into critical-thinking mode and we’re starting to see the benefits in world-wide fashion trends and production. In a big win for the sneaker industry, several leaps forward in sneaker design and manufacturing have meant that lovers of sneakers can buy up with a clear conscience. Go team green!
In order to understand the process of producing sustainable sneakers, it’s helpful to take a snapshot, up close and personal, of sneaker production and DNA. The shoe’s upper section is formed first, then a bottom section fitted to complete the shoe in a process known as strobel construction. Lining, skirts, heels and toe caps may then be added, with heating and machine operations employed to ensure tight construction and correct shape. Conventionally, over 12 different material mixes and component gluing are employed to create the sneaker you know and love. And as most avid recyclers will tell you – the more materials a product contains, the more difficult it is to be recycled. This has been the focus of many of the leading manufacturers of sneaker footwear, and most have risen to the challenge exceedingly well.
The market now features sneakers made from a variety of sustainable materials, including merino wool, cotton, silk, eucalyptus and sugarcane. Since 2018, Reebok have developed several plant-based prototypes and their athletic shoe made entirely from corn and cotton could double as an emergency meal if you fall into a ditch while running. Veja make a shoe from sustainably-sourced Amazonian rubber blended with cotton and silk, and an enterprising mob called Gumshoe now offer a shoe made entirely of recycled chewed-up gum. It can be done, and it is being done, and for the sneaker-consumer, we’re cheering them on with the full force of a customer-base hell-bent on saving the environment and wearing the best kicks around while we do it.
Slightly less off the beaten track, some companies have made smaller steps to achieve our end goal of saving the planet. Many are focussing on down-cycling as a way to utilise resources in an energy-efficient and cost-effective manner. This simply means the process of collecting, shredding, sorting and re-using the materials used in sneaker construction, also referred to as a closed loop in manufacturing. Since April 2019, Adidas beta testers have participated in a program called Futurecraft.Loop which created new shoes entirely from the old worn-out prototypes. Ahead of this curve, Nike’s been running a program called Grind since 1992, where returned shoes are recycled into new footwear and clothing. Some of this refuse has also been compressed to create running tracks, fields and courts, meaning that at-one-with-the-track moment pro athletes clamour about may be more accessible than you think.
There’s also the burgeoning issues of transparency, accountability and supply chain in business operations. Again, the sneaker industry’s hit the ground running, with companies working with environmental groups to raise the bar and respond accordingly with better practices. It’s a continuum of gradual streamlining and improvement, rethinking and analysing, with sneaker companies such as Allbirds leading the way. Allbirds explicitly state where each sneaker material is produced, utilising certified and eco-friendly manufacturing partners at each step of the process. Even their cardboard shoeboxes are 90% recyclable, and by 2019, they had fully offset all business operations and were completely carbon neutral.
If this company’s leading the way, the rest are not far behind. With consumers scrutinising the way companies do business, the sneaker industry’s showing promising signs that affordable, sustainable, high-quality footwear is achievable and in sight. From lace to base, each part of the sneaker is being reimagined, in the hope that future sneaker-lovers will be around to kick off their best pair of trainers at the end of another day. Replacing our carbon footprints with sneaker tracks might not save the world, but this team’s wearing green right down to our soles. We may not have run the full marathon yet, but it’s a step in the right direction.