Andy Polk, senior vice president and sustainability expert for the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA), has been on the front lines of the industry’s eco-friendly efforts for about a decade. He’s seen his share of breakthroughs as the industry tries to lighten its collective carbon footprint. And while at times it can seem overwhelming (like herding feral cats), Polk believes the industry is making significant strides to a greater, greener good.
Here, he gives an update of some best practices, breakthrough materials and what’s in the pipeline.
Open with Packaging: “Nearly every shoe company on their sustainable journey says packaging is low-hanging fruit to bite off. It can be as easy as asking your packaging partner to increase recycled content of your boxes and inserts. For example, remove plastic shoe forms and swap out paper inserts for recycled cardboard, which also weigh significantly less for shipping efficiencies. Being thoughtful on packaging is an easy win to build an eco-friendly story around. In fact, it can stop sustainability inertia, giving brands confidence to move forward on additional efforts.”
Reducing Factory Waste is Easier than Ever: “Thanks to FDRA’s new Factory Shoe Waste Program, pilot participants Target, Fila and Steve Madden have worked together to train factories on how to identify waste, sort it and recycle it to keep it out of landfills. The effort saw a 30-plus percent reduction of waste! As the program enters its second phase, there are dozens of companies joining the effort to increase sustainability efforts at the factory level. The program is plug-and-play: a team does the work for the brands in the factories. A small investment by each company makes a big impact on noticeable waste in our supply chains.”
Capital is Now at Stake: “Companies are getting more aggressive on hitting sustainability targets because investors are asking them to do so. In addition to offering green bonds to help fund sustainability efforts at lower costs, investors are using their financial muscle to push companies to a greener future. Access to capital is being tied to sustainable progress—like a company’s ESG (environmental, social and corporate good) ratings. It’s a new form of motivation that encourages companies to speed up their sustainability efforts as well as aim to meet higher targets. It could help prevent capital issues down the road as well as potentially provide access to additional funding.”
EPM Standards Matter: “Historically, companies have relied on material suppliers to help choose more Environmentally Preferred Materials (EPMs), but the lack of a universal standard specific to footwear manufacturers has stunted efforts. Worse, no baseline means shoe companies are forced to adopt apparel standards, which is crazy! Shirts have four materials, whereas shoes have 60-plus and they have to perform with constant physical pressure. Enter FDRA (again), which is currently working with 100-plus companies to set EPM thresholds as a guide as well as to set gold standard targets, i.e. an industry North Star, that can be executed against. By simply creating a marker, it will change EPMs for the better. Be on the lookout this summer for this helpful new industry tool.”
Green is Cool: “Keen is using recycled leather from old cars in select classic styles. Ugg is using sugar cane in its midsoles and tree fiber for uppers in its Fluff Sugar sandals. Saucony has a new zero plastic shoe, Jazz Court RFG (see p. 10), and
Dr. Scholl’s has introduced the Hunter, made with a high level of natural and biodegradable materials. And my new Nike Air Max Plus kicks are made of at least 20 percent recycled materials by weight and, even better, the 67 percent recycled felt uppers look like marble—super cool! We all know shoes need to be of value for consumers: the right fit, price and comfort, but the sustainable aspects are becoming a key part of the marketing story that consumers are buying into. While it hasn’t been easy and the sustainability efforts introduced by companies have taken years to gain acceptance, it’s finally starting to pay dividends. And new collections featuring the latest sustainable materials and constructions are building on this story. It’s like a (green) snowball gathering momentum and mass as it rolls downhill. The key is to just do it. Companies must build a genuine culture around sustainability for it to be successful. Such a commitment builds mind and muscle to innovate further, not to mention in ways that can improve the bottom line.”
The Holy Grail of Green: “It’s called circularity, a shoe that can be recycled to make another new shoe out of those same materials. Everyone is talking about it, but we are nowhere near that achievement because of how shoes are currently constructed and the multiple materials that are used. But we’re getting closer, and brands are starting to work together on what that means at a waste management structure. It requires a transformation in how we design and make shoes so they can be easily deconstructed and/or the materials can decompose. Right now, the industry needs to work together on recycling shoes for other industrial uses as a goal to keep more shoes out of landfills and figure out the path to circularity along the way. Part of that path is repairing and donating shoes and working with agencies like Soles 4 Soles to direct consumers to donate shoes to people in need instead of tossing them in the trash. That’s a great, baby step to achieving circularity.”