What Allbirds, Aldo + More Shoe Companies Are Doing Internally to Make Fashion More Sustainable

For footwear companies that have long embraced the idea of being more carbon neutral, they are now taking the next steps to protect the planet even further — by focusing internally.

Take Allbirds, for instance, which is now labeling every product it makes with its carbon footprint measure. The idea is to encourage the public to think more seriously about what goes into the clothing and shoes they wear, similar to food producers’ Nutrition Facts label.

The hope is that other firms will follow suit.

When it comes to impact, it’s clear that choices humans make have long-ranging effects on the planet’s health. And when the novel coronavirus pandemic forced business shut downs across the world in late March, it became overwhelmingly clear how the fashion industry needs to be on the forefront of change.

And consumers are ready for evolution.

A 2019 Nielsen study found that 81% of respondents “felt strongly that companies should help improve the environment.” The report said further that “Millennials, Gen Z and Gen X are the most supportive, but their older counterparts aren’t far behind.”
Some brands have taken their commitments beyond 100% sustainable, based on their materials, purchasing offsets, the way their factories run and how they set up their headquarters. Eventually having a net positive impact on the planet is a goal for many of these firms.

Timberland, owned by brand powerhouse VF Corp., has been a leader in environmental stewardship for nearly two decades, for example. The brand has reduced its use of greenhouse gases by 50%, and increased the use of renewable energy at its facilities, said Colleen Vien, Timberland’s director of sustainability. At year end 2019, the company was 68% to its goal of having all footwear include at least one material containing recycled, organic or renewable content.

“The primary focus on sustainability in the past was to responsibly source in a way that does not cause harm to people,” Vien said. “Now, the opportunity is to go further and create a positive impact. It’s giving back to the planet, as opposed to just changing it.”

In fall 2020, Timberland will launch a collection of boots made from leather sourced from Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed ranches. The leather for the collection will come from hides from the regenerative ranches as well as through using recycled leather, and Timberland plans to scale this program over time.

Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed Ranch
A look at a Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed regenerative ranch.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Timberland

“Regenerative is so exciting because it is more than just minimizing the pesticides,” said Vien. “It’s giving back to the soil in the way that cattle is raised and that agricultural commodities are grown.”

Timberland, which has also launched a campaign to plant 50 million trees over the
next five years, on top of the 10 million it has already planted, hopes to become net positive in the future.

A similar ethos is top of mind in luxury as well.

For 45-year-old Italian brand Santoni, its headquarters in Corridonia, Italy, is built from 90% recycled materials and runs entirely on energy harvested from solar panels on top of its factory. At 170% of use, the panels produce more energy than the company actually uses, and the excess is sold back to the energy grid.

In its latest product move, Santoni will launch a women’s and men’s capsule collection for fall ’20 called Rethink, consisting of shoes and a backpack made with nylon obtained from plastic recovered from sea waste, eco leather, recycled rubber, recycled metal and water-based glue.

Santoni Rethink sneakers
Santoni’s Rethink sneakers are made from sea waste.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Santoni

New high-end brand Aera, founded in 2019 by Tina Bhojwani, Jean-Michel Cazabat and Alvertos Revach, has also launched with an entirely sustainability-focused philosophy. According to Bhojwani, the vegan brand is 110% sustainable, in part by offsetting its carbon and water impacts to have a positive impact on the planet. The brand’s shoes, from flats and sandals to heels to boots, are made from material that is 50% plant-based and 50% synthetic, with a goal to use 100% recycled materials eventually.

“We created a brand because we wanted to prove that luxury style and design can be analogous with sustainability. It doesn’t have to be either or,” said Bhojwani. Aera shoes are handmade in Veneto, Italy where artisans take two days to craft each shoe.

To cement its engagement with sustainability, the brand, which in early April launched a new tagline, “Luxury footwear without a footprint,” hired a third party to measure the impacts the brand’s production, transportation, storage and delivery has on the environment. And the brand focuses on being transparent about those impacts, a principle that’s important to the founders to show.

One of the ways Aera balances the costs to being sustainable is by having a curated assortment, said Bhojwani.

“I don’t believe that seasons are relevant anymore. We have a timeless, seasonless collection that’s not meant to be marked down,” she said. “If you have the quality, the shoes will last and you can use them years from now. You also try to not have a very big collection.”

Its shoe boxes, meanwhile, are made of paper that contains 40% post-consumer recycled waste and 15% residues of organic waste.

Finally, for the past seven years — and for decades before that — Aldo Group has focused deeply on eco-friendly efforts and in 2018 became the first fashion footwear and accessories company to gain carbon-neutral certification.

“Our founder [Aldo Bensadoun] was thinking of social responsibility and purpose before the terms became mainstream,” said director of global communications Tanya Iermieri. “Mr. B. started designing shoes with the goal of creating a different kind of modern company, one founded on compassion and ethics, aiming to influence society in both fashion and social responsibility.”

In 2013, Aldo first built “a team of sustainability experts to measure our footprint internally and annually. This allowed us to reinforce the connection between our sustainability department and the entire business and to raise awareness on the role of our company in the fight against climate change,” she added.

As of 2018, the same year Aldo began purchasing carbon offsets for its non-avoidable emissions, Aldo had reduced its operation’s emissions by 46%.

Looking to 2030, Aldo plans to reduce its carbon emissions per pair of shoes by 30% compared to 2016 levels. The firm also incorporates low-impact, plant-based materials and recycled plastics as its materials, with plans for components to “become even more sustainable as we continue to research and implement this.” Plus, in 2019, Aldo’s Call It Spring label went fully vegan using jersey fabric made of post-consumer recycled water bottles, eco-vegan leathers and insoles made from an algae-based material called Bloom.

And for the Aldo brand, the company launched its first sustainability capsule collection called RPPL, made from recycled plastic bottle yarn and lake algae in 2019. “Each pair contains five recycled plastic water bottles that keeps 640 grams of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere,” the company said.

Most recently in 2019, Aldo stopped using single-use plastic shopping bags and is now phasing out paper and plastic shopping bags, too. Instead the company gives out a transportable shoebox with a built-in rope. The shoeboxes are made from 80% post-consumer recycled materials and are completely recyclable.

Aldo Shoe Boxes
Aldo stopped using single-use plastic shopping bags in 2019.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Minas Panagiotakis/Aldo

Looking ahead, re-using and recycling the materials in footwear when it’s reached the end of life are goals for Timberland and Aera, among other firms.

“Circularity is becoming part of our design philosophy,” said Timberland’s Vien. “There’s the infrastructure for suppliers to take the [old] components and actually turn them into new components. Before, it was difficult to find at scale the vendors that would be able to do that for us. Now we know we can do it.”

Aera’s Bhojwani added, “Ultimately, we do believe that if you’re going to be sustainable, you can’t work in a linear way. You have to have a circular approach to the business.”

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