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A Sustainable Solution? Make Shoes More Like Cars & Repair Them, One Expert Says

Sustainability is dominating conversations at this week’s Micam international footwear show in Milan — and one footwear expert believes he has a solution that will help make the industry more eco-friendly.

“Shoes can be a lot more like cars,” said Pete Lankford, footwear industry consultant and a former design and creative director at Timberland, during a sustainability panel at the show on Tuesday. “Cars are complicated. They have thousands of parts. Each one is meant to come off and be replaced.”

By contrast, “shoes are fused together in a way you will never get them apart,” Lankford noted. “Most of them are essentially made of plastic, in one form or the other. Things like this don’t last. They tend to scratch or stretch or fade. They don’t look good when they’ve been used.”

To create styles that people want to hold on to — what Lankford refers to as long life products — there are three essential elements. “They have physical longevity, which means they’re made out of robust materials, they have stylistic longevity and they’re made for repair,” he said.

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For footwear players, this means transforming the entire production process. “You have to go back to the beginning. It comes down to a simple phrase: ‘I want to put things together so they can come apart.’ It’s a simple maxim to use whenever you’re working with a factory or a supplier,” Lankford explained.

Build shoes more like cars.
“Shoes can be a lot more like cars,” said Pete Lankford, footwear industry consultant.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

Other panelists noted that the prevalence of fast, disposable fashion continues to be a huge issue. “Sometimes a pair of shoes on Amazon can cost the same as a Big Mac meal,” said Federico Brugnoli, the founder of Spin360, a company that specializes in developing new sustainable business models. “In general, we have a lot of people buying low-cost [shoes] and then wearing them a few times and throwing them away.”

But designers have the opportunity to ignite change across fashion if they are properly trained, Brugnoli said. “Products need to have a sustainable DNA. Whenever I support brands and retailers, I say to them, ‘First you [implement sustainable practices], then you do good and you can think about communicating it.”

Nicoline van Enter, co-founder of The Footwearists — a company that connects all elements of the supply chain together — suggested that the future of sustainable manufacturing is to cluster retailers from different industries around a shared local production source. “The factory supplies all types of stores, so one of the waste streams [from one product] can be a starting point for another product,” she said.

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