A crossover between Sustainability and Shoe Design Sheet1

“Little drops of water,/Little grains of sand,/Make the Mighty Ocean,/and the pleasant Land,/So the little minutes,/Humble though they be,/Make the mighty ages/Of eternity”. This excerpt from Julia Carney’s poem ‘Little Things’ taught kids from every generation the power of doing small things in unison. These words hold a lot of value for the present inhabitants of a planet that may not be fit enough to host many generations in the future. While industries deplete resources and pollute the environment with extensive manufacturing without concern for its impact on the earth, it is equally irresponsible to fuel their greed by consuming and craving for more of what is offered. In its present state, shoe manufacturing is considered one of the most unsustainable industries in the world. The high percentage of post-production and post-consumer waste generated is a recipe for disaster. Under these circumstances, it becomes important to re-look the mode of operation for this industry. 

Why did the footwear industry need urgent intervention?

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Ruthless extraction, industrial pollution, and post-consumer waste are the 3 major areas that need attention. The problem at hand varies according to the choice of material. The cotton and wool industry contributes to about 20% of the industrial water pollution while tanneries have a negative ecological impact. These industries that supply raw materials needed for shoe manufacture are also infamous for inhumane working conditions. It is also estimated that the industry contributes above 1.4% of the Global Greenhouse gas emissions, which amounts to approximately 700 million metric tonnes. Finally, about 300 million pairs of shoes are thrown out each year, which may take hundreds of years to completely decompose in a landfill. Ethylene-vinyl acetate, found in most sneakers as the shock-absorbing component, is believed to take more than 1000 years to break down. Moreover, by virtue of the way it is assembled, shoes are fairly difficult to recycle. 

What triggered the positive change?

A crossover between Sustainability and Shoe Design Sheet3

In the new digital era, consumers are becoming more aware of the atrocities we are faced with, and the different factors that contribute to them. Information indicating the aim, goals, and ideologies associated with a brand is becoming more important to consumers. They expect companies to be more sensitive and their choices are guided by more factors than just the brand name or the social status associated with it. 

How did the manufacturers respond?

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As of 2020, about 44% of manufacturers have decided to materialize their ideas by putting together teams to look into the sustainability aspect of their products. From an ecological and ‘brand image’ standpoint, shifting to sustainable practices will be beneficial in the near future. Companies track 4 major aspects of their product and its production: Factory energy and water use, Factory material and water waste recycling, Factory carbon footprint, and use of recycled materials. Concerning the trend within the industry, about 70% of the players are on board with the idea of sustainable products, but factors like quality of output, cost, and time for production are still causing concern. 

How are shoes becoming sustainable?   

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Many factors influence the environmental impact of a product. In this case, common criteria are as follows: material with low carbon footprint, ecological raw material extraction, production with minimum wastage and pollution, fair working conditions, durability, and recyclability. Virgin plastic, rubber, and petroleum were the main constituents of shoes for most companies until recently. These materials have high carbon footprints and hence they started exploring alternatives. There are advantages and disadvantages associated with every material and hence companies need to set straight their priorities in order to arrive at the best possible solution under the given conditions. Recently, companies have started coming up with a variety of solutions that are in sync with their ideologies. Concerning material used, recycled plastic waste, cotton, corn, castor bean oil, artificial leather, merino wool, sugarcane, recycled tires, algae, plants, etc. are just a few of their experiments. 

Companies are also investing in take-back policies where the returned shoes are recycled into sports surfaces. The returned shoes are also being handed over to less fortunate people through various organizations. 

Response from Consumers

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With better knowledge about what they’re spending money on, consumer preferences have changed over time. Research shows that people are willing to spend more on sustainable products such as the Nike Grind focused Nike Air Max 90 Terrascape Moreover, there is an increased demand for products tagged as ‘eco-friendly, ‘recyclable’, ‘vegan’, etc. For such products, it is seen that a longer waiting period is tolerated and even acceptable. The positive response from consumers serves as an encouragement for companies to invest in a practice that, at present, is more costly and riskier. 

Studies warning of imminent environmental disasters calls for prompt action from all facets of society. It is the responsibility of every individual to act in a way that no further damage is inflicted. As consumers, it is our duty to support the movement towards achieving 100% sustainability in the manufacture of consumer goods. It is important to understand that if every individual aims to achieve a zero or negative carbon footprint, the cumulative impact it has on the environment will be colossal. 



Avneeth Premarajan is a practicing Architect and an ardent “student” of Architecture. He is intrigued by concepts, ideas, philosophy, evolution and geography of design. He is more than willing to give up a few hours of day-dreaming to write about his thoughts.