At times, the challenge to clean up the industry’s act can seem overwhelming and cost prohibitive, not to mention like herding feral cats. It’s not easy being green. But don’t despair. Progress is being made, assures Andy Polk, FDRA’s sustainability capo. In fact, he’s downright optimistic about the progress that’s being made and, more so, what’s to come.
Polk’s optimism starts with strength in numbers. “The majority of companies are now moving forward on this effort,” he says. “There’s more collaboration, programs and solutions across the entire supply chain. Companies are finding their footing and are innovating to both reduce their environmental impacts and better optimize operations.”
Here, Polk cites three trends fueling more optimism than ever about the industry reaching a more sustainable future.
1. The Snowball Effect
Going it alone on sustainability means higher costs with lower impact, which is why collaboration is critical. Fortunately, Polk says companies are increasingly working together. Even better, they are sharing intelligence. Copying is encouraged, because it helps lower costs and contributes to a cleaner good.
Polk notes that there are companies leading specific efforts to work toward this goal. Caleres, for one, created the EPM Guide (shoesustainability.com/epm), which helps companies choose sustainable materials. Many companies now use the guide. Another example: Target, Steve Madden and Fila helped launch the Shoe Waste Program (shoesustainability.com/shoewaste) focused on recycling factory waste, which has now expanded to more than a dozen companies in Asia. The program is keeping waste out of landfills while creating a meaningful ROI for factories, Polk says.
End-of-life product efforts is another area of collaboration. Polk recently attended a circularity conference at MIT with 12 brands. The fact is millions of shoes end up in landfills every year, and any progress in reducing that will have a huge impact.
2. Materials Green Rush
It’s no secret the industry needs to move on from petroleum-based materials. The fact that 30 percent of a shoe’s carbon footprint comes from materials bears that out. The good news is suppliers are introducing plant-based and recycled materials faster than ever.
“A few years back, we’d get excited to see new sustainable materials come out maybe once a month,” Polk says. “Now it feels like we see new innovations happening weekly.”
OrthoLite, for example, just introduced Cirql, a midsole foam material that can be recycled or biodegrade. (See Q&A p. 12.) Polk adds that Camper just launched a line using Mirum, a 100-percent, plant-based material that looks like leather, created by Natural Fiber Welding. “We also see more from Bloom, Tencel, Evoco, Jones & Vining and others across the industry,” he adds. “In fact, FDRA’s survey showed 70 percent of companies are planning to use more of these materials in upcoming lines than in 2020.”
3. Knowledge is Power
Increasingly, Polk says companies are developing clear sustainability goals that fit their specific objectives. Sustainability is not a one-size-fits-all process. “What we consider ‘sustainable’ for running shoes is very different than high heels, slippers or even casual shoes,” Polk explains. “They’re all constructed differently, have different materials and are for different uses.”
The good news is that companies are figuring out what they can and should do. “Brands now have a much better understanding of their products and processes, and it’s allowing them to better craft efforts to ensure sustainable success,” Polk says. And while there are still knowledge gaps—which FDRA is trying to solve through digital training (shoesustainabilitytraining.com)—he says companies are not as scared to jump into the sustainability pool. For example, only 34 percent of companies in 2019 had clear sustainability goals and targets, according to an FDRA’s survey. That figure jumped to 43 percent in 2021, and Polk expects it to top 50 percent by year’s end. “There’s some real excitement now around solving issues—rather than fear—because people feel they can get their head and hands around challenges,” Polk says. “That’s a very positive sea change.”