Ways to Develop and Support a Sustainable Footwear Industry

The biggest problems in the fast-changing fashion industry is the recyclability of footwear and how to deal with the huge amount of waste generated. One of the main issues comes from the mixing of different materials and components. An average shoe consists of about 20 components that are built and bonded together to such extent that these different materials get to the landfill together and they won’t get selected or recycled.


As the members of the Pikkpack footwear company, it is one of our aims to analyze and make researches on this problem. We would like to design shoes that could provide a solution regarding the question of sustainable footwear. Fortunately, there are more and more promising initiatives in the modern shoe industry that draw our attention to the importance of eco-consciousness.

The main strategic factors of sustainability are:

  1. Minimisation of material and energy use
  2. Implementation of processes and materials that are eco-friendly
  3. Optimisation of the life cycle of the product. Designing long-lasting and durable products
  4. Making the separation of materials/components easier
  5. Prolonging the life of materials and easing their disposal

In the followings, we would like to introduce some footwear brands and products that one way or another have fulfilled different criteria of eco-design and that are worth paying attention to.

RESOURCES/ RAW MATERIAL

The materials and their sources are extremely important if we want to design in an ecological mindset. I would mention three different options:

  • Materials coming from renewable sources (Organic classification, organic farming)
  • Biocompatible materials or biodegradable materials / recyclable materials
  • Local materials

OAT shoes— These kicks are made of fully biodegradable materials. You can plant or compost these sneakers when they’re worn down and flowers can bloom from the seeds hidden in the tongue part of the shoes.

The O1M OneMoment shoes are made from 100% biodegradable bioplastics and materials. When you’re done with wearing them, you can shred them and put them in the compost bin. Within approximately six months, they will degrade back to the earth and leave no waste.

Puma has also made serious steps in order to produce wearables that meet he EPA certificates and help reduce Puma’s ecological footprint. A great example for this is the Puma InCycle shoe collection. All components of the inCycle line are biodegradable and include materials that can be broken down by microorganisms into biological nutrients.

The upper of the shoe is a mix of organic cotton and linen while the sole is composed of APINATbio, a new biodegradable plastic that can be shredded into its component materials before getting composted into natural humus.

MANUFACTURING

The biggest concern of eco-conscious companies is perhaps to avoid or eliminate every chemicals and highly toxic substances that are used during production. Most of the players of traditional footwear industry work with extreme amount of harmful glue and a wide variety of synthetic mixtures. In case of production, these two factors are the most important to consider:

  • Clean production (Minimal pollution and minimal waste)
  • Resource efficiency (Minimal amount of material and minimal energy consumption)

Both requirements are met in the case of Terra Plana’s Pop Shoes. The ‘Terra Plana Pop’ uses minimal glue to connect only 12 components.

It’s a truly modular shoe, which is lightweight, ergonomically crafted and boasts an interchangeable sole that is easy to repair and to switch for a fresh look. All of their products are created according to the five points of the so-called eco-matrix which is a scientific product-life-cycle analysis.

EFFICIENT TRANSPORTATION AND DISTRIBUTION

Nowadays packages protect the products as armours which we can’t get through without buying the product. Sometimes it is a real pain in the ass to unpack things we purchased. Besides, packaging adds about 29 million tons of non-biodegradable waste to landfills every year and 11.8% of all US annual municipal solid waste is plastic. Footwear companies can attempt to decrease this number and to increase the efficiency of transportation and distribution by following these conditions:

  • Local resources, local manufacturing, local distribution, reduced transportation Co2 footprint
  • Minimized packaging, recyclable packaging
  • Foldability, flat-packaging
  • Eco-information, eco-labels

At this point we would like to mention “Clever Little Bag”, the project of Puma and Fuseproject. The designer group “Fuseproject” founded and run by Yves Behar was commissioned by Puma to design a packaging technology that leaves as minimal footprint as possible. The collaboration was successful, resulting in a shoebox which was completely different from the traditional ones. During its production the cardboard use was decreased by 65% and since it could be folded into a smaller piece and therefore occupied less space, transportation cost, gasoline use, and Co2 emission were decreased. They’ve saved 1 million liters of water and a total of 8.500 tons of paper. The materials they used were , of course, fully recyclable.

When it comes to foldability and flat packaging, another great example is the brand called Studio Lo. They have created a variety of products and most of them are based on the concept of flat-packaging. Our favourite is the shoe design called Chausson Pod, made of unique screen printed felt.

USE

Patagonia is one of the most eco-conscious company, that produces premium category outdoor clothing. The brand’s credo is based on 5 words: Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle, Re-imagine. Patagonia encourages its customers to buy only what they need and to use what they own as long as possible. On its end, Patagonia vows to sell only useful products that are made to last. The company offers a repair service which means that a broken or torn Patagonia gear can be returned to the company and they will repair and ship it back to the customer. In 2010, the company reported repairing over 12,000 garments for customers. What is more, when a piece of Patagonia apparel is completely worn out and no longer usable, customers can mail it back or drop it off at a Patagonia retail store. The company will then recycle the clothing free of charge.

SOCIAL FACTORS

Social aspects are the most sensitive points of the eco-design criteria. Basically, until a company can operate locally it has only few employee and needs less resources. When the growth of the company reaches a certain point, the production has to be reconsidered. At this stage, many companies decide to use cheap materials and cheap labour in order to gain more profit.

Fair trade supports the third world while socially responsible production can help disabled people by creating jobs for them. These are the three main factors that refer to social responsibility in the footwear industry:

  • Fair trade
  • Avoiding and standing against child labour
  • Socially responsible production

While researching on fair trade companies we came across an Ethiopian company called soleRebels, who are not just a fair trade company but they make their shoes from sustainable materials. The founders’ mission was to create more workplaces in poor/developing areas and hire only local people using local materials.

They use tyres for making shoe soles and organic cotton for shoe uppers. They also work with local weavers who make hand made weaves that soleRebels use as shoe uppers.

We’ve learnt so much from these great examples. While designing Pikkpack Shoes, Sara focused on waste-reduction and finding ways for more efficient production, transportation and distribution. As we mentioned before, an average footwear is usually made of around 20 components. In case of Pikkpack, this is reduced to only 3: the sole, the shoe upper and the shoelaces. There is no linen inside and the glue use is also minimal, just a small amount applied at the heels. Since it’s a flat-packed footwear and the wearer is involved in the production, a pair of Pikkpack is small and flat enough to fit in an envelope. We do not use shoe stuffing or space-consuming paper boxes. This aspect itself has a huge impact on the logistics of storage and transportation. However, I do not want to stop at this point. We would like to experiment with new an more sustainable materials and processes and make the Pikkpack products as eco-friendly as possible.

The global footwear industry faces many challenges in terms of increasing sustainability. As global population keeps increasing, so will the demand for product and footwear. Researches on environmentally friendly materials (such as vegetable-tanned leathers, natural rubber, biodegradable fabrics) and on new ways of optimizing different processes will determine the changes that need to be made to make footwear production less toxic.

Source: The Master Thesis of Sara Gulyas, the designer of Pikkpack Shoes

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