Footwear Has a Waste Problem — Here’s What Some Brands Are Doing to Help

To get a sense of how much packaging waste the footwear industry generates, think of what comes along with the average pair of shoes bought online.

First you have the shipping box, then the shoe box, then any tissue paper, plastic baggies, cardboard inserts and other ephemera that a retailer might include to protect the product or give the unboxing experience some Instagrammable oomph — almost all of which will likely end up in the trash or recycling.

According to the EPA, packaging accounts for about 30% of America’s trash by volume, or around 78 million tons per year, and even though 53% of that gets recycled, the rest goes into landfills. The problem is only getting worse as online shopping becomes more popular: According to the Pitney Bowes Parcel Shipping Index, 74.4 billion parcels were shipped globally in 2017, a figure that’s expected to swell to 100 billion by 2020.

A few shoe brands have begun to recognize the urgency of the issue and are taking steps to reduce their footprints — a savvy move at a time when consumers are demanding more activism on the part of the companies they shop from.

Dr. Scholl’s Shoes recently announced a sustainability initiative that includes a short-term goal of reducing the amount of plastic and paper it uses in its packaging by more than 4 million square feet and 300,000 square feet, respectively, for the spring 2020 season. The brand is also testing a one-piece shoe box that can be shipped directly to consumers — no additional shipping box required — using recycled material and soy-based inks, and cutting out excess waste by combining anti-mold sheets and plastic baggies, and using bamboo reeds in place of plastic to keep shoes’ shape

“Our team is so passionate about this work, and we have big goals for our sustainability efforts,” said Andee Burton, Dr. Scholl’s Shoes product development and sustainability manager. “We are making deliberate choices to invest in sustainable, eco-conscious design to create environmentally lower-impact shoes, reducing packaging and choosing sustainable processes when possible. This is a team effort that impacts the way we think, design, craft, and distribute each and every shoe we make.”

Dr. Scholl’s Shoes’ new one-piece box designed with recycled materials.
CREDIT: Courtesy Dr. Scholl's Shoes

The single box idea should be a no brainer for footwear retailers, especially for shoes that are unlikely to get damaged in transit, but it’s still a relative rarity, though eco-conscious startups like Rothy’s and Allbirds are hoping to change that.

Allbirds, which is known both for its signature wool sneakers and its commitment to sustainable materials, has been “hyper-focused on reducing impact across the entire business, including this packaging development,” said Jad Finck, Allbirds’ VP of innovation and sustainability.

The three-year-old company sold its millionth pair last spring, and every one arrives in a box that is designed to do double duty as a shipping and shoe box. “To top things off, the entire box is fully recyclable as well,” said Finck. “Next up, we’re working to remove the small amount of remaining virgin plastic in our supply chain.”

Allbirds also said last month that it would impose a carbon tax on itself to offset the emissions it generates on each pair of sneakers.

Adidas has taken a similar philanthropic tack, donating €1.5 million (about $1.68 million) to the sustainability nonprofit Fashion for Good, an amount it says is equal to the environmental cost of the plastics it uses in its supply chain. (Plastic consumption is a particular threat, as it continues to balloon: Global plastic production — already at 335 million tons per year — is projected to more than triple by 2050, comprising 20 percent of all fossil fuel consumption, according to the UN-established International Resource Panel.)

From a branding perspective, it’s essential that customers know about the work that companies are doing to reduce waste, and many brands have begun to publish their goals in this regard. Vans says online that it has switched to a shoebox that uses 80% post-consumer recycled paper and soy based inks, and eliminated hangers and hang tags on surf footwear, which it says amounts to hundreds of thousands of pounds of material per year.

Puma publishes updates on its progress toward its 10For20 Targets, a set of initiatives linked to the United Nations’ Sustainable ­Development Goals. In terms of its packaging, it says it uses 92% FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified cardboard and paper, a designation given to materials that come from responsibly managed forests and/or recycled material.

Walmart has also highlighted its footwear business as a case study for its sustainability efforts: Between 2013 and 2016, it says it switched 85 million pairs of shoes from shoe boxes to hangers, eliminating 16 million pounds of cardboard and — thanks to space savings and an overall reduction in packaging — reducing greenhouse gases by 20,000 metric tons.

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